Saturday, 27 September 2014

Mindfulness and depression: Anthony's wisdom and courage

If you hover your cursor over the title above, it will take you to a blog post that is a bulletin from the front line of using mindfulness to help with  clinical depression.

Anthony's honesty and insightfulness need no further words from me.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

They shall not grow old" - the British Legion is mis-using these words.

This excerpt form Lawrence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen" is frequently used at the funerals of soldiers, and at memorial ceremonies for them such as Armistice Day:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. 

The poem is called "For the Fallen," i.e. for those who die in battle.

These words, followed by the Last Post bugle call, are profoundly moving when uttered at the funeral of a soldier who has died in action, or on active service. It is not to glorify war to observe that these simple lines have rung eloquently and painfully true to generations of English-speaking people around the world.

However, the British Legion uses them in the funerals of old soldiers. A while ago I attended one such funeral. As a national serviceman he had fought bravely in one of the small but nasty wars during the twilight of the British Empire. He died in his mid seventies, over fifty years after his military service.

It abrurptly dawned on me that the first two lines of the Exhortation, as the Legion calls it, were wildly inappropriate for this man. He had, I'm pleased to say, grown old; he had survived the patrols and ambushes of his youth, raised a family, enjoyed the rest of his life. Age had wearied him, in the way that it wearies anyone who lives out a reasonably full life-span.

The last two lines, "At the going down of the sun..." were entirely appropriate, and could be used at anyone's funeral, especially if you subsitute "him" or "her" for "them."

It's about time the British Legion stopped mis-using these words; the worst thing that could happen to them is over-familiarity. We need these words in the full form, for the dreadful day when a family has to say goodbye to a young man or woman who will not grow old.


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

GET RID of us professional funeralists.

If you let your cursor hover flirtatiously over the title above, it will take you to a BBC website article about printed houses, for people to live in on Mars and the moon (uhuh. Why? What's the point? Enlighten me someone please...) It then goes on, much more interestingly, to computer-printed houses right here on earth. Houses built at a fraction of the costs and the time of your standard housing estate box.

The article mentions the hostility of some architects, who claim it debases their professional skills. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - Frank Lloyd Wright is a design hero now, but he wasn't always, and as for Le Corbusier...And there are those of us who marvel that the National Theatre must surely have been designed and built by a robot, or a very angry person. Opposition to printed houses via aesthetic arguments would need some careful thought. How lovely a sight is a contemporary suburban housing estate?

Construction firms will no doubt also be pretty hostile. It would be a huge upheaval. 

What's this got to do with funerals, Gloria? I can hear you ask. (I hope...)

If computer-printed houses dispense with most of the skills and labours of professionals, then a truly co-operative, community model for living with the end of life would get rid of most of the paid work of celebrants and undertakers.


 Just to repeat it again: a community (adjoining villages, small town, city district) has in it people who would occasionally give their skills to supporting people who are dying; to caring for their bodies when they are dead; to carrying out a funeral ceremony,  and to supporting the bereaved. They wouldn't expect payments, except sometimes - for expenses involved in body care, for example. This would build community relationships (deaths bring people together) and save people a hell of a lot of money.

Never mind (for the moment) the Scottish referendum; devolve funerals to the community, not the governing elite of undertakers and celebrants.

GET RID OF US! (mostly.)

I would work locally for expenses only, if I were helping with ten funerals a year instead of fifty, if I were helping to organise and co-ordinate something people were doing themselves, saying what they want to say, doing what they want to do, and holding that ceremony where they wanted.

DOWN with gruesome crematorium chapels, neo-Gothic "chapels of rest," rushed half-hour ceremonies.

ALL POWER to the dead and the bereaved.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Denial vs consolation, depression vs mourning, funeral poems

Edward Hirsch lost his son Gabriel in 2011, and recently published a long eponymous poem about Gabriel's life and his death. 

In the interview I mentioned in my previous post, he says:

“I think ancient cultures incorporated death into the experience of life in a more natural way than we have done. In our obsessive focus on youth, on celebrity, our denial of death makes it harder for people who are grieving to find a place for that grief. There is a big difference between depression and mourning. Depression is a feeling without a cause. Mourning has a cause. Many of us are carrying the dead around with us. We should not feel ashamed of that.”

I'm sure the second sentence carries a sombre truth for our culture and our times.

He also says that what he wrote about elegy in "A Poet's Glossary" would be less about consolation, had he written it after his son's death.

I sometimes wonder if I try too hard to find consoling words for funeral ceremonies; it seems to be what people want, they seem to find it helpful. Is it a fine line we walk between denying death and offering a consoling thought?

The last line of the much-used poem "Do Not Stand By My Grave And Weep" is:  "I did not die." 

To which Spike Milligan might have said "then what the hell are we all doing here dressed in suits?"

Brian Patten's "How Long Does A Man Live?" (out of Pablo Neruda, btw) I find a lot more substantial, with a much better balance.

 It doesn't seek to deny the reality of a death, and the consolation it offers seems to me much more substantial.

Words, ritual, ceremonies - making wordless anguish articulate

Interesting article in the Observer yesterday and online, about an interview with Edward Hirsch. Thanks to Katherine for the tip-off. 

The article made me think, which is a bit hard on a Sunday morning, about the words funeral celebrants write and speak, in what is often loosely called "the elegy."

Celebrants scratch their heads an excess of words, words, words.... I think we sometimes get fed up with the sound of our own voices, which is in its way probably a good sign.  Some of us want more ritual and less wordage.

We may be doing ourselves down unneccessarily. Hirsch wrote this entry in "A Poet's Glossary:"

 “elegy”: “A poem of mortal loss and consolation...The elegy does the work of mourning, it allows us to experience mortality. It turns loss into remembrance and it delivers an inheritance. It opens a space for retrospection and drives wordless anguish, wordless torment toward the consolations of verbal articulation and verbal ceremony.”

If our words, whether in the form of elegy (i.e. reading a really good poem or passage) or our own efforts, "turn loss into remembrance" then they may be creating the "verbal ceremony" he refers to. We may sometimes under-value that power. 

I'm reminded of what has been said about really effective popular music: it gives voice to the feelings millions of people have but can't articulate so well themelves.

Sometimes, of course, bereaved people do articulate well for themselves, or they do so for us to read out for them. Other times, we have to find the words with and for them. It's a difficult thing to do. "A raid on the inarticulate, With shabby equipment always deteriorating In the general mess of imprecision of feeling..." as another poet, TS Eliot, wrote - about his work. 

Our successes are never total. I guess - hope - our failures are only partial too.

It's a great thing to try to do.

You can read the article here:

Monday, 8 September 2014

Being a funeral celebrant

I've posted on this before - a good while ago - and this one is likely to be just as opinionated as the earlier ones. But it's only my opinion, so just step over it rather than let it spoil your morning, or even two minutes of it!

Being a funeral celebrant is:

  • a community service not a job. You may get some money for it, but if you are not primarily committed to being at the service of your community, then clear off out of it, because you're part of the problem, not part of the solution. (The problem is expensive funerals unsuited to the families who book them.)
  • being part of a movement. Not the movement you might think it is. It's not the Atheists Militant (or otherwise), nor the New Age, nor the Green Funeral Movement, or any other pre-committed label. It's a movement working to find ways of "doing" funerals that suit the families you work with and their cultures.
  • not being anti or pro the status quo. There isn't a status quo. It's all on the move.
  • demanding and draining, though not depressing.
  • really rather wonderful

We come in all shapes and sizes, and we work in all sorts of places.

If you think it suits you, come and join us, but if you just want to earn as much as you can as quickly as you can - please don't.

The Mother of the Sea - Kathleen Drew is a Shinto goddess

Here's what seems to me a remarkable and moving story. 

Phycology is the study of algae, and Dr. Kathleen Drew was a phycologist at Manchester University. In 1949 she published a paper in "Nature" which for the first time made clear aspects of the reproductive system of a certain seaweed.

The seaweed is  porphyra laciniata, and it grows along the North Wales Coast.

Gosh this is riveting, you're thinking. 

Hang in there. You're reading about a Shinto goddess.

The seaweed is closely related to Nori, the black seaweed they wrap round nori rolls, eaten all over the world but especially in Japan. It's a very healthy and nutritious food.

Her paper was read  by a Japanese scientist, Sokichi Segawa, who was gracious enough to pass all the credit to Dr Drew, although it was he and colleagues who realised that her discovery would enable the harvest of nori to be much more predictable and very much larger. In effect, it could be seeded and sown.

Japan was close to starvation in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the seaweed industry in particular was close to collapse. Drew's discovery revolutionised the production of nori, saved the communities that harvest it from great suffering, and contributed to Japan's resurrection as a prosperous nation. It's unlikely that any of us outside Japan would every have heard of nori were it not for her.

Every year  on April 14th, there is a ceremony by the sea in Japan in her honour., in gratitude to her. She is called The Mother of the Sea, and is regarded as a spirit, a goddess, in Shinto.

There was a lovely BBC Radio 4 documentary about her this morning, you can get it on iPlayer:

I just love the idea that someone unknown to almost all of us, I suspect, could be seen as a goddess in a far distant and very different culture, and built into their traditional annual celebrations.

There she is, peering down her microscope in Manchester in the Thirties, little knowing she is going to be pantheonised in Japan twenty years later. Blessings can emerge from unlikely quarters!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Multi--tasking and mindfulness

It seems clear that women are better at multi-tasking than men. Whether that's because they have to be, or whether that's a good thing for any of us, is a different matter.

This woman seems quite cheerful about it all, though her little spud may be just about to delete a morning's work....Three people close to my heart have to do a lot of this sort of thing these days.

One thing is pretty definite; mental multi-tasking is not what you want in meditation, nor, says Larry Rosenberg*, in life.

"People sometimes ask "how can I get anything done if I do only one thing at a time?" Actually, we can be more effective. There is better attention and less tension when we do just one thing, and these factors more than balance the time that is saved by doing several things at once."

 I think he's not necessarily right in the short term - we're social animals, and sometimes our social (work) environment demands multi-tasking, but I'm sure we should avoid it when we can. I'm also sure he's absolutely right in the long term, because multi-tasking is a strain. It wears you out.

What he does urge us to do is to be pliable as well as steady in our attention. 

If a child runs into the room with a nasty cut and you're just filling the teapot with boiling water, it's multi-tasking time - no good saying "I just need to be mindful of the moment, and I'm making tea. Be with you in five." 

But even in this sort of instance, it's down to the quality of attention we bring to what we're doing. In fact, crises, even mini-crises like this one, often result in our being very firmly and clearly in the moment. But multi-tasking when you don't really need to, out of habit?

TS Eliot nailed it: "distracted from distraction by distraction."

Sounds to me like a definition of much of what's on Facebook....

* "Breath By Breath," Larry Rosenberg with David Guy.