Friday, 27 May 2011

Rise and shine

Considering the seemingly random nature of bookings I receive, both in terms of the number of funerals and the cross-section of society, it never ceases to amaze me how patterns can emerge. Some months the ages are almost identical, other months it will be cause of death. This month I have led three funerals for elderly men, each of whom were never married, had no children, and all the arrangements were made by their nieces.
When you arrange a funeral service, you are dealing with both the death of someone, and the events of their life. And, sadly, that's when you see how some people's lives are anything but rosey. For one of these elderly gentlemen, having learning disabilities saw him banished by his own family to an institution at the age of nine. He was told he'd only be staying for two weeks; he was there for 50 years. Thankfully the care, love and kindness that had been missing throughout most of his life was present during his final years, thanks to a compassionate niece and the dedicated nursing staff at the care home she found for him. And this was the focus for our ceremony.
When it comes to life, we all experience the good and the bad, the dark and the light, the happy and the sad. When it comes to funerals, we have to find ways to shine a light on every life lived, even those who seem never to have emerged from the shade. It's a challenge at times – you want an honest reflection of a life but without dwelling on the sadness. But for me, the darker the life, the more determined I am to find the positives, and give them their day in the sun.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Instant comfort

In true Comfort Blanket spirit, here's a link to a lovely idea, which was sent to me by my good friend ric-rac.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Hand-made... with love

Back in March, I published a post with some thoughts on the many ways people 'stay with us' after they have died. See
In this post I mentioned a lovely lady who was a potter and whose funeral I had led, exactly eight week's ago today. Well, this afternoon, at the same time and in the same chapel, I lead the funeral service for her beloved husband.
It's not often you have the privilege of meeting the person whose funeral you are leading. But I had, of course, met this charming man when I arranged his wife's funeral ceremony. And, as you can see from my previous post, he very much left a deep impression on me. This inspirational couple had shared 70 years of their lives together, even working alongside each other in the pottery – she designing and crafting, while he fired and glazed. They remained very much in love and were often seen in the village during their final years, strolling along hand-in-hand. Their togetherness earning them the nickname 'the Love Birds'.
It's not uncommon for a spouse to die within a short space of time after their husband or wife. They even have a name for it - 'the widowhood effect'. Last year researchers from St Andrews University studied more than 58,000 married couples. Their findings suggested that 40% of men and 28% of women die within three years of their partner. The study took into account a wide range of causes of death, but even after making allowances for factors such as cancer, smoking, accidents etc. scientists found 'powerful evidence' that many widows or widowers were more likely to die because they had lost their spouse. (Sunday Times 14th November 2010)
I'm not suggesting this is the case here. We don't really know why this man had died so soon after his wife - he was, after all, quite elderly and had one or two health issues. Although nothing that had given cause for immediate concern. But what we do know is that they had both lived a full, rich, happy, colourful life, surrounded by family and friends who loved them dearly. I only knew him for a few hours, but what luck to have shared a lifetime...
Before I left the chapel today, their children presented me with this beautiful teapot, made by the Love Birds, as a 'thank you'. Despite protesting that I merely did my job, they insisted that I take it. So now, I too can join the family and friends of this talented pair who have pieces of pottery to remember them by. What an honour...

Monday, 16 May 2011

To the very end

Dying Matters Awareness Week starts today, and to launch the event the results of a survey have been published, confirming what we all know – death is still a taboo subject. You can see the results here:
I do appreciate what Dying Matters is trying to do but what would have been even more thought-provoking, and useful, would be to know WHY people don't want to think or talk about death. Although you could argue "well that's obvious isn't it?" I think the results could be interesting and, perhaps, even more revealing than the expected responses of "it's too morbid, scary, depressing, painful" etc.
As an aside, I was surprised and impressed by the son of a lady whose funeral I led recently, when he asked if he could go 'behind the scenes' after the service and witness her coffin going into the cremator. This is something anyone can do and is common practice among Hindus and Sikhs. But this is the first time I've had a family member make a request. His brothers and sisters, and his dad, didn't feel it was something they wanted to do. He just said, by way of explanation, "I want to accompany her right through to the end" – and he did. Good for him.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Are you receiving me?

Those of you who follow this little 'ol blog regularly (for which I kiss you on both cheeks) will know that I often have the odd gripe about crematorium chapels, and the limitations it puts on being able to provide a really 'good' funeral service. So you'd think I'd be happy when the much rarer opportunity to lead a graveside service comes along, wouldn't you? Well, having done so yesterday, I'm afraid I felt restricted by that too. "Is she never happy?!" I hear you cry. Well, here's why...
First of all, there's the issue of trying to create a nice 'grouping' around the grave. Yesterday, as is common in council cemeteries, we were part of a row. So although I could stand at the head of the grave, no-one could stand either side of it because you had an existing grave one side, and the huge pile of freshly dug earth the other. So already there is this 'distance' between you and the family/friends.
Secondly, there is the challenge of being heard. You try to raise your voice in a way that isn't actually shouting at people but loud enough so those who always seem to hang back (no matter how many times you invite them to step forward) can hear you. Depending on the location of the cemetery, you also have traffic noise to contend with and, sometimes, the distraction of the odd visitor who is tending a nearby grave. The trouble with 'semi-shouting' is that all your careful crafting of the content of the service – those specially selected words, phrases, quotes, poems, readings – lose some of their subtle effect. And there is no music to do what music does best at such times. Another barrier to making yourself seen and heard is when the coffin bearers are stood in front of you during the most emotional part of the service - the committal.
Thirdly, there's the awful fake grass 'matting', similar to that used by greengrocers, which is laying around in different size pieces. I appreciate it is doing its best to hide the fact that we are all standing beside a six-foot hole in the ground. But when the disguise is haphazard, it can look like a bad episode of Ground Force.
Finally, there is the weather. Yesterday was windy but sunny. The forecast was much worse...
It wasn't a disaster – the family did say afterwards that they thought the service was lovely and went as well as they hoped for. And I'm sure that, not having had a lot of experience with graveside services, many of the above issues may improve over time as I learn how to position people, speak up etc. But I do think the layout of council cemeteries remains a challenge. I have led a few services at my local natural burial ground, and they were certainly a much nicer experience. Both for me and the family, I think.
Once again, I feel it is a case of celebrants and families trying to make the best of what is currently available to us. Although any tips from those of you who have much more 'graveside' experience than me would be most welcome!

Pencil power

Here's a touching blog post I came across the other day...

Friday, 6 May 2011

Seven lessons from 7/7

This is a really thought-provoking and moving article on the inquest verdict of the 7th July 2005 terrorist attacks on London.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

One woman's grief

Last month, Matt Cardy from Getty Images was named Photographer of the Year at the 2011 Press Awards. This was one of his winning photographs. The caption reads 'A woman clings to the hearse carrying her cousin, 20-year-old Private Douglas Halliday, whose body was brought home from Afghanistan'. When I looked at this young woman with her head and hands on the glass, I got a real sense of the 'distance' between the living and the dead – the hearse being a physical barrier that simply echoes the emotional one. Very, very moving.

And the happiness keeps on coming...

Having pledged my support to Action for Happiness (see last post) I've just received a brilliant newsletter from them. Full of updates and ideas, including how to start your own Happiness Group locally. When I clicked through to the link, it listed this website as a resource – Random Acts of Kindness 
It is fantastic! Among the many touching ideas is one from a lovely lady called Holly whose friend Steve is terminally ill and can no longer travel. She has asked all her other friends to send Steve a postcard, either from the town/city they live in or if they go away, saying something like "Hi Steve. Thinking of you..." I thought that was a great idea. I did have a fleeting thought that is there a danger of upsetting the person because the postcards are a reminder of what they can no longer do? But then I imagined if I was ill, and all these postcards kept arriving from people who were thinking of me, how I would feel. I think I'd feel extremely touched and very grateful.
Goodness me – just by joining the Action for Happiness gang I feel extremely uplifted, inspired and, well, happier!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Action for Happiness

I first became aware of Action for Happiness when they partnered the BBC in January for a week-long Happiness Challenge. I scribbled down the web address after seeing the launch on Breakfast News, then promptly rushed out of the door and head-long into another week. Now it's May and I have finally taken a look at their website
Any movement that focuses on building a happier society where "people care less about what they can get for themselves and more about the happiness of others" gets my vote. The website informs and inspires – I especially like the set of happiness posters, one of which is pictured
You may already be switched on to this – I am, as I said, a little late in getting to the party. But now I'm here, anyone care for a dance?