How We Die

Death remains a taboo in our culture and yet it is a natural part of our life cycle. My work brings me into contact with it every day. In such a way, death in normalised. I still have a healthy fear. I don’t have all the answers and the question of when and how is always troubling, but my work makes me aware that there is more to death than the instant when life leaves the body, and it is probably more complex than we understand.

I wanted therefore to share some of the more interesting things I’ve learned in my work…

1. Every death is as unique as life

We have become so used to seeing death as the Big Bad that we tend to see it as a single, universal Thing. While it is true that we’ll all die, death is a process, both physical and emotional. Not all deaths can be ‘good’ deaths. Not all can be peaceful. But it is worth recognising that death need not be a sudden, violent and terrible instant. In many cases, it is a quiet fading away. Sometimes the moment is shared with others, sometimes the person is alone. But everyone’s experience will be as unique as the life they lived.

2. Death is not one thing

Medically speaking, death is defined as a combination of symptoms: loss of pelse, breathing, brain function. At first this may sound obvious, but we are used to the idea of a “moment of death” as if there is a nice, easy line to be drawn between life and death. There isn’t. There is no single thing that is death.

3. We have some control over death

Obviously this is not always the case, but there is some evidence that, especially in cases of illness, people can have a little control over the moment when they die. One often hears of people ‘hanging on’ for one last visit. Even stranger is the number of cases of loved ones ‘missing’ their relatives’ deaths. Often this is very upsetting. They have been at a dying person’s side all day, and they leave for a moment to get a drink, only to return to the person dead. But this is recorded so frequently that we can conclude that some people seem to need to wait until they are alone to die. For whatever reason, while farewells are often significant, privacy sometimes seems important.

4. Death feels good

While it is hard to know how it feels to die, scientists are able to monitor the brain. The chemicals that are released just before death are those that relax the body and make you feel good, even high. Many people report bright lights and experiences of leaving their bodies or reuniting with dead relatives. While one can write this off as a physical effect of the release of chemicals in the brain,it is also possible that those feel-good chemicals are released as a result of those experiences.

5. Death is falling asleep

A recent article offers a fascinating insight into the experience of dying. Those who die slowly appear to enter a period of intense dreaming before physical death occurrs. Reality and the world we call imagination overlap and fade into each other. The closest equivalent may well be the experience of falling into a deep, dream-filled sleep.

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A Year in the Life of a Funeral Celebrant

I’m coming to the end of my first year of work in the funeral industry and am thus far enamoured of it – not in a morbid way; it is simply that I feel very privileged to work with people at such an important time, to hear about their loved ones, and learn about their lives. Getting to know someone’s life story is always an extraordinary experience, especially when you are being entrusted with those memories, later to put them into words during the service.

I’ve taken non-religious ceremonies, spiritual, Church of England, Catholic, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu.

People assume that a civil funeral celebrant will take non-religious ceremonies only. That is far from the case. About ninety percent of the services I’ve taken have religious content. The only difference is that there is nothing prescriptive in them, in terms of the order of service or what can be included: one prayer or ten, taken from one holy book or several.

And I’ve worked with some truly inspiring and wonderful families. 

I’ve released doves, conducted woodland burials, private services for only four people, and services for three hundred people. I’ve had impromptu performances from guests, both instrumental and vocal; readings, not only of poems, but of whole short dramas. We’ve decorated coffins with flowers, butterflies, photographs and, on a couple of occasions, cans of beer. We,ve said goodbye with traditional music, heavy metal and football chants (sometimes all in the space of one funeral).

In September of this year, I was honoured to not only be nominated for the Good Funeral Awards, but to make it through two shortlists, one away from the award itself.

My thanks go out to the Funeral Directors who took the chance on a newcomer to the scene: Albert Parr’s in Penge, Green Endings in North London, Albert Parr’s in Beckenham, Dignity in Beckenham, Co-Op in East Dulwich, Dignity in East Dulwich, and Dignity in Catford.

Have A Little Respect!

Respect for the dead. It’s not a hard concept, is it? So why does it cause us problems?

Some things are obvious – switch off your mobile phone at funerals. (No, really, switch it off). Don’t stomp on people s graves. Don’t honk your horn to try and make a hearse go faster…

But, working in the industry, you quickly become aware that there are shades of grey.

TAKING THE SKELETON OUT OF THE CLOSET

Take this little gem, which was the end of at least three people’s careers: the deceased had a sense of humour and wanted a skeleton to be there at his funeral, perhaps to break the ice or simply freak out his guests. When photos from before the funeral were leaked, people were horrified by the disrespect for the dead – the jokiness, and the macabre slant were all deemed inappropriate.

Does it make a difference that it is what the dead man wanted? Arguably yes. It would have been pretty horrendous were it an unwanted funsie! But three people still lost their jobs.

In the funeral community we debated what we would have done. If it was a request by the dead man would you refuse it because it could appear inappropriate to the outside world? Most of us agreed we wouldn’t. But as the celebrant here pointed out “my mistake was putting it on Facebook.” And there, a line was crossed.

Taking the skeleton was an important and respectful act, honouring a man’s dying wish. The skeleton was not the disrespectful part. Respect fell away when she broadcast his dying wish, something which should have remained private. (Picture from the Lancashire Post).


POKEMON IN THE GRAVEYARD

When Pokemon Go first came out rumours abounded that certain ‘ghost’ pokemon could only be caught in graveyards, and pokemon trainers flooded in. Many memorial sites responded by reminding people that their behaviour was inappropriate.

There is something however to be said for ‘normalising’ graveyards. As a culture, we tend to cut ourselves off from death and, perhaps I’m biased, but I think graveyards are beautiful. They are peaceful, sometimes wild, and often the last bastians of wildlife and nature within grey cityscapes.

So, walking through a graveyard, texting, talking on the phone in a graveyard, or even playing Pokemon Go in a graveyard? I personally wouldn’t condemn these activities. There is nothing inherently disrespectful in them.

However a line is crossed if such activities disturb those who have come to mourn. In a graveyard or a memorial, there is a hierarchy when it comes to use of the space. At the top of this hierarchy must be those for whom the need to grieve is keenest. Yes, this is about respect, but it is also about human compassion and recognising when the needs of others outweigh our own. In the grand scheme of things, having a space to grieve is vital, capturing a rare Pokemon is not.

SMILE FOR THE CAMERA

Since the Selfies at Funerals (pictures on this link may be disturbing) blogs on Tumblr and Instagram hit the headlines both the controversy and the demand for photography at funerals has become more widespread.

Most funeral homes will offer both photography and video services for funerals. Yes, this is quite a new thing and is sometimes met with appalled disapproval, but there are reasons why demand exists and they are nothing to do with a lack of respect – quite the opposite.

Video services are used for two main purposes. The first is to record the funeral for people who could not be there. This is vital, particularly if a close friend or relative is unable to attend. Many elements of a funeral are designed to be psychologically healing and, for many, seeing that they are adhered to is a part of the grieving process.

Videos are also used when a mourner feels they may be too grief-stricken to fully take in events, but they still want to remember what was said about their loved one. This is often the case for large funerals with lots of speakers. For very close relatives, these can be overwhelming occasions, somewhat blighted by a need to retain composure in front of so many. Taking a video allows them to come back to the speeches and memories at a later time, to truly listen to what was said, and perhaps mourn in private.

Finally, while a selfie with Granny after she has passed might be a bit much, photography is no longer a hobby limited to taking snaps that make people go “ooh, how pretty.” With the advent of the Internet it has become a way in which people record their lives and diarise their emotions, both good and bad. Snapping pictures at a funeral can be one way of saying “This is an important point in my life. It would be wrong to forget this.”

IN CONCLUSION

It is important to remember that respect is made up of many things: action, yes, but also intention and compassion. One person’s respectful behaviour can appear disrespectful to others.

When it comes to funerals, the most important thing is not, in fact, respect for the dead, but respect for the living and the grieving. To get it right, communication is key. If Bob wants a life-size zombie figure at his funeral, maybe mention it to the other guests so they don’t get the wrong idea. If Eileen wanted some dirty jokes in the eulogy, be aware if this might offend delicate ears. If you need a selfie with the hearse, ask prominent people if this would upset them. Be sensible and, above all, be kind.

And please turn off your mobile phones!