When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Monday, November 27, 2006


I collect old photographs. This postcard was in a batch I've just bought from a dealer over the Internet. It appears to be a woman wearing mourning dress, though I've never seen this type of bonnet and veil before.

On the back of the card the dealer's written "early Edwardian", and there's a photographer's stamp; "Copyright - Lizzie Caswell Smith, 90 Gt. Russell Street, WC1".

Lizzie Caswell Smith is listed in the National Portrait Gallery's collections, but none of her photographs are shown online. Will have to check the next time I go there.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Grieving by the book

Jennifer Saunders' new TV sitcom, Jam & Jerusalem, is about a "Women's Guild" (code for WI) in a West Country village populated by eccentrics.

Sue Johnston plays Sal, the practice nurse in the local health centre, whose husband is the GP. He dies, and her doctor son takes over the practice and makes her redundant. Sounds very gloomy, but it's comedy with pathos.

Anyway, the scene that interested me was when Sal is visited by a "bereavement counsellor". She's taken to sleeping in the dog's basket since her husband died, but apart from that she's being stoical. When a young woman turns up uninvited on her doorstep and tells her she's from "the grieving group", and she's come to help, Sal politely invites her in for a coffee. The counsellor burbles on about how she must be feeling, and the stages of grieving. Sal denies that she's grieving in the order the counsellor suggests she ought to be; she says she thinks she's skipped a few stages, and gone straight to melancholy. Oh no, protests the counsellor, you have to do it in the right order! Sal suddenly realises that the young women is a widow herself. When she asks if she is, the young woman bursts into tears. It seems she's been a widow for five years and is stuck in one of the "stages". Sal comforts her weeping guest, and gives her some advice. Not to worry about "stages", but to set aside an hour a day for grieving, if she must. Otherwise, she must get a new hairdo and buy a new top, and enjoy herself.

There was a strong element of truth in the scene. I've heard people talk about "stages of grieving" and thought it's all nonsense. Everyone grieves in their own way; some quietly, some not so quietly. I've had people ask, "How long will I feel like this?", as though there's a set limit. People can be taken by surprise by a sudden rush of emotion, when they'd thought they had it "under control". The philosopher Prof A C Grayling wrote, "We do not get over losses; we merely learn to live with them." Sal was right - get a new hairdo, buy a new top, and avoid wallowing in stages.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Let's be clear about this...

It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving, it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe.

Thomas Paine, (1737-1809) The Age of Reason
Since I started conducting Humanist funerals in 1991, many more people have become aware that they have a choice about the form a funeral might take.

You can have your traditionally liturgical C of E service, which is often more about God and Jesus and less about the person who’s died.

You can have a non-conformist Christian service of various sorts, which may or may not include a relevant tribute to the deceased.

You can have a ceremony in accord with one of the minority faiths – I’ve never been to any of those, but have heard they vary in the amount of ritual they include.

You can have a pick ‘n mix ceremony that’s not traditionally religious but includes religious elements, like couple of hymns and readings (usually sloppily sentimental) refering to an afterlife. People choose these for a variety of reasons. They might genuinely feel that a hybrid ceremony (as an atheist funeral director I know calls them) is appropriate, as they’re religious but not the organised sort. They might be confused but err on the side of caution – if there is a God, he, she or it might disapprove if he, she or it isn’t given a look in and send you to hell or wherever it is we non-believers are supposed to end up, according to some nasty believers. They might be worried about “what people might think” if they opt for a non-religious ceremony, because some still imagine that atheism is bad, religion is good. They might be too lazy or unimaginative to consider their options. They might be worried about upsetting conservative older relatives who are used to doing things the old-fashioned way, so they add familiar elements to appease them. They might not have any reason worth considering.

You can have a non-religious ceremony that’s conducted by a Humanist celebrant or one of those Civil Ceremonies people, or anyone who provides such a service – it’s a free market.

What bothers me is the number of self-styled “humanist” celebrants (inside and outside the BHA network) who are conducting pick ‘n mix ceremonies. They’re providing “what the families want” they’ll say. If that’s what the families want, fine – we know that such ceremonies are in increasing demand – but any self-respecting atheist won’t provide it. Humanists can be agnostics, they say, though I’m with the late Douglas Adams and the still with us Richard Dawkins in thinking that agnostic equals fence-sitting. However, there’s fence-sitting, and there's climbing over to mouth meaningless stuff rather than lose a client. Where’s their integrity?

Douglas Adams loved Bach's B minor mass, and so do I. There's lots of beautiful music that was written by religious people or for religious people and as long as we don't have to sing words that are either meaningless to me as an atheist, or that express things I profoundly disagree with (such as "All things bright and beautiful, the Lord God made them all") I don't have a problem with including it in a Humanist funeral. I'm OK with the bit in Ecclesiastes about "a time to be born and a time to die" - the bible's an anthology, not the word of God, and some of it's not religious - or with anything written by a religious author that's not actually religious.

There've been requests for inappropriate elements in Humanist funerals, such as a hymn. I've asked people whether they've listened to the words and the answer's often no, not really, or they've said, "But it's not really religious, is it?" about songs like Amazing Grace. When I've read them the words, they've agreed that they're not appropriate for the funeral of a confirmed atheist. That's the trouble with religion; so few people have really thought about it, and how little sense it makes.

Ask yourself; would you rather have a celebrant who actually believed what he or she is saying and who stood for something (even if you don’t agree with him or her), or would you rather have someone who’d say anything, however insincere? Suit yourself. I know what I’d prefer.

Humanists, the genuine variety, reject religion and are keen to demonstrate that it isn’t necessary for a satisfying rite of passage ceremony that reflects the personality and beliefs of someone who lived, and died, without it. Compromising our Humanist principles to provide a service for people who have plenty of alternatives is a betrayal of all the sacrifices that have been made by those who've fought for the right to be free of religion. Not only that - the people who do it, don't get it - Humanism, that is.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

No afterlife, thanks.

If you read my last post, you’ll know how I feel about an afterlife, life after death, or whatever you call it – there isn’t one. At least, I hope there isn’t one. I’m 99.99% sure there isn’t one. I’d be bloody surprised, and disappointed, if there is one. I don’t want one.

Many of those who’ll say they’re not religious still say they think there’s “something” after death. They’ll still talk about seeing Mum, Dad, or whoever has died recently, again. Ask them how and where, and they’ll be stumped for an answer. Not that I do. Ask them. That would be insensitive, I suppose, when they’re grieving. Still, I’d like to.

At a recent local Forum of Faiths, all the other speakers had different versions of an afterlife to explain. Actually, I’m not sure they did explain, now I come to think about it. But they all expected an afterlife, where their God would be waiting for them. Would they spend eternity with people they liked, or would they have to share it with people they didn’t especially like? Would they be as they were when they died, even if they were old and wobbly? Or would they be restored to youth and vigour? Would they be recognisable at all, or survive as a patch of bright light, a spirit? None of them could tell me. They were all vague about the details.

A few years ago, I took part in a local radio discussion about whether or not there’s an afterlife. The presenter wanted to talk about something that was more challenging than the usual local radio blandness, so she could refer to it in some sort of a presenter’s seminar she’d be going to. There were three of us; me, a Christian evangelist, and a woman who wrote books about psychic phenomena. The latter wasn’t in the studio with us. No, she didn’t just send psychic messages; she took part by phone. The evangelist was in the area because he was due to have a rally of some sort that evening, where he hoped to save a few sinners. The presenter revealed that the evangelist had lost his son in a road accident, fairly recently. It didn’t seem quite right to challenge him about whether or not he’d see his son again, under the circumstances, but he was keen to tell us that his son had felt there’s an afterlife too. The woman on the phone told everyone she’d got evidence of an afterlife, because so many people had told her about their experiences. As the discussion progressed, the evangelist got into his stride. I clearly annoyed him, especially when I said that I hoped there isn’t an afterlife, and asked what I’d be expected to do for eternity. God would have “responsibilities” for me, I was told. Surely, I said, there are many who’ll have had enough of responsibility at the end of their lives. Wouldn’t it be cruel to foist more on them? That made him crosser. How dare I question God’s wisdom and work plan? He didn’t actually say that, but it’s what he implied. At the end of the discussion, I think I won on points.

Some might imagine that when you die, your “soul” flies off, like Tinkerbell, and finds another host to inhabit. Wasn’t there a character like that in one of the TV sci-fi series a while ago? Was it one of the Star Trek offshoots? Deep Space Nine? No, hang on – it was a sort of parasite that outlived its hosts and then moved on, with all their collective memories intact. That was it. But I digress…

Some seem to imagine that people hang about, watching over their loved ones. My mum did. When I was young she used to tell me her mother, and God, were watching over me. I resisted the urge to say that there was no bloody privacy in our house anyway, without them spying on me too. That would have upset her.
In The Life of Reason, the Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote:
It would be truly agreeable for any man to sit in well-watered gardens with Mohammed, clad in green silks, drinking delicious sherbets, and transfixed by the gazelle-like glance of some young girl, all innocence and fire. Amid such scenes a man might remain himself and might fulfil hopes that he had actually cherished on earth. He might also find his friends again, which in somewhat generous minds is perhaps the thought that chiefly sustains interest in a posthumous existence. But to recognize his friends a man must find them in their bodies, with their familiar habits, voices, and interests; for it is surely an insult to affection to say that he could find them in an eternal formula expressing their idiosyncrasy. When, however, it is clearly seen that another life, to supplement this one, must closely resemble it, does not the magic of immortality altogether vanish? Is such a reduplication of earthly society at all credible? And the prospect of awakening again among houses and trees, among children and dotards, among wars and rumours of wars, still fettered to one personality and one accidental past, still uncertain of the future, is not this prospect wearisome and deeply repulsive? Having passed through these things once and bequeathed them to posterity, is it not time for each soul to rest?
An afterlife – it’s all wishful thinking; a denial of death. Some hate the idea of not being here any more. Others hate the finality of separation from their loved one. I can understand that, but it doesn’t make immortality true. Let them imagine it, but don’t try to impose that view on me.

Immortality’s a horrible idea. In Constructions, Michael Frayn wrote:
Those who wish to abolish death (whether by physical or metaphysical means) – at what stage of life do they want the process to be halted? At the age of twenty? At thirty-five, in our prime? To be thirty-five for two years sounds attractive, certainly. But for three years? A little dull, surely. For five years – ridiculous. For ten – tragic.

The film is so absorbing that we want this bit to go on, and on…

You mean, you want the projector stopped, to watch a single motionless frame? No, no, no, but … Perhaps you’d like the whole sequence made up as an endless band, and projected indefinitely? Not that, either.

The sea and the stars and the wastes of the desert go on forever, and will not die. But the sea and the stars and the wastes of the desert are dead already.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Over the Rainbow Bridge

It’s bad enough when people get yuckily sentimental over dead friends and relatives, often the same friends and relatives they used to ignore or whinge about while they were alive, but when they start going into yuck overdrive over a dead pet, I give up.

No, I’m not a heartless bitch who can’t understand it when people grieve over a dog or cat – I’ve done it, and will again – but there are limits.

Since friend Jan announced the death of a much-loved cat on Flickr, I’ve discovered the ‘Rainbow Bridge’ group. What’s a Rainbow Bridge? You may well ask. It’s what dead pet owners will cross with their dead pets on their way to Heaven, apparently.

The Rainbow Bridge Flickr group quotes an anonymous author (doubtless he or she was too ashamed of the rubbish he or she had written to actually put a name to it), who describes how old, sick and injured pets are made whole again…
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together...
Then what? You spend Eternity stuck there, playing the same games over and over until you’re fed up with throwing balls and stroking heads? The trouble with most people’s idea of an afterlife is that they haven’t thought of the consequences. Boredom, for one thing...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

When love flourished in M for medical textbooks, and a story of yearning

The Observer | Review | When love flourished in M for medical textbooks

This story reminded me of a client. She was a Jew who came to England as a refugee, like the subject of the story. She was also a doctor who had to retrain before she could practice medicine here. For a while, she worked as a nurse. By the time she retired she was a senior doctor in the public health service. She married an English engineer in the 1950s and they lived in a mews house in Chelsea, where they entertained lots of cultured, artistic and lively people at frequent dinner parties. Then they commissioned a well-known architect to design a bungalow for them, in Suffolk. It was an open-plan, modern design with huge picture windows - the sort that caused a stir in the sixties. She took me to see it once. It had been empty for some time, but you could still see what had appealed to them.

They never had children. Her husband developed dementia and ended up in a nursing home, so they were separated for several years at the end of his life. I did his funeral, which was how I came to befriend her. She was crippled with arthritis and chronic asthma and living in council-owned sheltered accommodation, a tiny flat in the middle of town. Her neighbours were elderly Suffolk people, nothing like the friends they'd had in Chelsea, so they had little in common. She was desperate for stimulation and conversation so I took her out when I could, which wasn't often. A few months before she died she said, "Never grow old," with anger and frustration in her voice. She also spoke about the "yearning" some people have for something above and beyond the limitations of life. At her funeral we played "Upon Going to Sleep", the first of Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs", which she'd chosen for her husband's funeral. It's a musical version of a Hermann Hesse poem, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. If it hadn't been for my friend, I might never have discovered it. If I was a fundamentalist atheist, I'd reject it because of the reference to a soul, but I haven't, because it describes perfectly the yearning that my friend experienced in her old age and decrepitude.

Upon Going to Sleep
Hermann Hesse

Made tired by the day now,
my passionate longing
shall welcome the starry night
like a tired child.

Hands, leave all your activity,
brow, forget all thought,
for all my senses
are about to go to sleep.

And my soul, unguarded,
will float freely,
in order to live in the magic circle
of the night
deep and a thousand-fold.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Resist the temptation

A programme on BBC4 last night called ‘The British Way of Death’ included part of an interview with Agony Aunt Virginia Ironside, who made it clear that she thinks it’s a bad idea to plan your own funeral. I agree. Apart from paying in advance through a ‘funeral plan’ (though it probably makes more sense to save in some other way), and maybe suggesting some music and a reading or two, planning your own funeral can cause huge problems.

I’ve written elsewhere about the funeral of a close relative last year, and about Claire Rayner's funeral plans. Forgive the repetition, but (as you may have noticed) I feel strongly about this. If you're tempted to make a wish list for you own funeral, DON'T DO IT!

My relative and a friend spent an afternoon drinking wine and planning her funeral – she had terminal cancer – and the result was a shopping list of expensive and problematical wishes and instructions about the form her funeral should take. It was one of the least satisfactory funerals I’ve ever attended, with stressed relatives endeavouring to tick everything off her list, no matter how unnecessary or complicated. For example, she wanted karaoke, a barbecue and fireworks at a party afterwards. Why? Because it’s what she’d have liked if she’d still been here? Some people joined in the karaoke, while the more sober looked on uncomfortably. Weeks afterwards, people told me they thought it was a very strange occasion. The barbecue had to be done on a cold and windy patio, definitely not like a spontaneous summer party. As for the fireworks; it was not permitted to use them at the community centre where we held the party, because the insurance premiums would have been far higher than any rockets, so they had a few sparklers instead (there was a fireworks party, a couple of months later, but I didn’t go). The friend who'd help to make the plans that drunken afternoon seemed to think she ought to have been put in charge of the party, and got maudlin drunk while the family did their best to ignore her.

The ceremony itself was strange. X said she didn’t want anyone talking about her. Instead, a clergyman said a few words and someone read a poem. Otherwise, it was all music, a sort of desert island disks, one after another. It was all show and no substance.

A couple of years ago, I did a funeral that included a tribute the deceased had written herself, in the third person. Her family seemed to regard her efforts with amusement. They were going to remember her as someone who didn't trust anyone else to do the job properly. The tribute was a brief chronological account of her life, but gave little away about how she felt about any of the people who'd shared it with her.

I’ve heard of serious family disagreements over funerals like this, with people getting very het up over what they can or can’t do, and all because the dear departed hadn’t understood what a funeral is for. It’s not an opportunity to try to influence other people’s reactions to your death from beyond the grave (or crematorium furnace, as the case may be). It’s not for you to tell other people how to remember you. It’s something you have no control over – let those who survive you do it their way. Hopefully, it will be relevant. They won’t, for example, give you a religious funeral if you were a committed atheist, unless it’s to spite you for being a pain in the arse. If you have any consideration for the living, you won’t expect them to jump through hoops to satisfy your expectations – why should you care? You’ll be dead, for goodness’ sake! That’s partly the problem though, isn’t it? People who make elaborate plans for their own funeral find it very hard to imagine not being here any more. Well, the thing is, when you’re dead that’s it. You don’t get to attend your own funeral, except in posthumous form. You won’t hear the tributes from inside your coffin. Believe me – you won’t. Just as well really, if you're the controlling sort. You might be tempted to hammer on the lid from the inside, screaming 'No! Not like that!'

A funeral might celebrate your life, if you're lucky, or it might not. Some people just want to get it over with. As for what they'll do there: some may weep and wail (though the noisiest may be weeping crocodile tears) while others remain calm and dignified. It’s not up to you what they do. Only the vain and the controlling would want to encourage any particular response. If you imagine that you’re making it ‘easier’ for your family to plan things, think again. It could have the opposite effect from the one you're aiming for anyway. People might remember your self-indulgently weird funeral, and wonder if they had you all wrong and you weren't a nice sensible person after all.

A few years ago, a funeral celebrant I know spoke of helping several people plan their own funerals. I advised her not to, but she went ahead anyway. Later, I heard that one family had told her thank you, but they were going to do the funeral their way and wouldn’t need any of the stuff she’d prepared. I resisted the temptation to say ‘I told you so’.