The Grim Reaper

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Recently I conducted a true Cockney funeral. The chief mourner, Carol, had insisted that her father’s funeral was to be a jolly affair, in keeping with his life. The coffin arrived in a London bus, and everyone had been instructed to wear red and white in honour of his beloved Arsenal. For the music to accompany the committal – when the curtains close and the coffin leaves – the family had chosen “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner”. And afterwards? Pie and mash and jellied eels all round.

A couple of weeks earlier I’d led a rather different affair, for a young woman whose hobby had been performing circus acts. For this ceremony mourners were instructed to wear bright colours, and the service began with a video of the former acrobat cavorting on a rope dangling from a dizzying height. Then friends sang her favourite songs and one of the children played “Ode to Joy” on the piano.

Some mourners want a happy celebration, others a more profoundly sad send-off. But whatever the mood, anyone who conducts humanist funerals knows that people are
increasingly wanting something intimate and personal. How, for example, would you honour a 65-year-old man who had spent his working life in road maintenance? Easy. His family lined the central aisle of the crematorium chapel with a funnel of traffic cones.

Celebrants don’t always wait to be told. One, who was leading the funeral of a man who’d been a member of a Lancaster bomber crew during the war, decided to add some extra colour. Just as the coffin was leaving he surprised the family by playing a recording of a Lancaster taking off. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

“Death and dying are no longer the domain of euphemism and closed doors,” says Isabel Russo, head of ceremonies at the British Humanist Association, pointing to the growth of consumer guides and media coverage as evidence of a “desire to engage with the subject of death and to discuss what a ‘good death’ might look like.”

Yet despite these inventive extravaganzas, there’s a glaring omission. It’s as if the poems and pop songs, the live jazz bands and videos and butterfly releases and fancy dress are a way of avoiding the unwelcome matter of the body itself. “The dying,” writes WM Spellman in his new book A Brief History of Death, “are often kept tidily out of sight, relegated to hospitals, skilled care facilities or nursing homes. Indeed it is not impossible to go through life without ever encountering a dead body outside the cosmetic setting of a funeral parlour.”

That’s something that Richard Putt, a long-serving director of the funeral company Levertons, is determined to change, as he explained when I went to see him in his North London office. A cheerful, avuncular man with a reassuring handshake and penetrating eyes, he began by telling me about the changes he’d seen over the last 40 years. When he started out, bereaved people would be offered a package – an off-the-shelf funeral, altered according to the religious denomination. The ceremony would last 20 minutes and then it was on to the next one. A secular funeral wasn’t even an option.

These days, funerals are more like variety shows – music, readings, performances, sobbing eulogies. But what has changed most is how unprepared people are. A hundred years ago, Putt explained, it was common to die at home, comforted by friends and family, the body lovingly laid out by relatives. Even the unmistakable reek of a putrefying body would be familiar – and that familiarity meant that the Victorians coped better with death than we do. Even those dealing directly with death – nurses and doctors – have little idea what happens when their part is finished. And so Putt conducts his own quiet crusade, lecturing nursing students at South Bank University, and visiting local hospices and hospitals to explain what happens after someone has died. He even holds open days at his premises.

“These end-of-life care professionals may look after their patients brilliantly up to the moment of death,” Putt told me. “But you’d be surprised how little they know about dealing with the body. So we talk about embalming, about coffins and ashes. And when they visit we’ll take them to a mortuary, then to a crematorium so they can see for themselves what goes on. One doctor said I’d changed his life by equipping him with the authority to tell bereaved relatives what to expect next.”

Funeral directors tend to be compassionate, good-humoured people, very matter-of-fact about their craft. They’re amiably bemused by the modern way of death, with all its fancy trappings. And its hazards.

“I wouldn’t encourage your clients to go with the horse-drawn carriage,” one advised me recently. “I mean, you’re going to be parked up a pretty steep hill and the brakes on those things aren’t too clever.” He also had a cautionary word for the family who’d planned a beautiful gesture for after the service – the release of a white dove in the garden of remembrance. “Just watch out for the hawks over Hampstead Heath,” he warned me. “They’ve been known to swoop out of the sky and carry off the flying symbol of peace.”

All funeral directors are obliged to take such practicalities in their stride. But no one could be quite as relaxed in his gruesome surroundings as Peter Millar, director of another family business in North London. When I visited the imposing double-fronted Victorian house that used to be his family home, he was busy in the main office shearing the shaggy coats of two spaniels, doggy fur flying over desks and telephones. Nearby were his two nephews, soberly attired in striped trousers and tailcoats – ready for action, presumably, should any new client come by.

After the dogs were suitably shaved, Millar gave me a guided tour. “See this parlour here,” he pointed out proudly. “That was where my great-grandfather had the coffins made. I used the spare chips to make toys.” He’s carefully curated the firm’s archives, a teetering pile of books filled with entries of every funeral for the last 100 years. He’s even kept all the invoices, including details of the sale of the horses that used to draw the hearse carriages.

After squeezing past sample urns in the passageway and a few wreaths waiting for collection, we went down to the parlours of rest, piled with satin-lined coffins: boxes for dead bodies. For Millar, these are just a normal part of the job. But it’s not easy to be quite so casual.

I remember my first introduction to the bowels of a crematorium, a chilly maze of corridors and dungeon-like rooms with their rows of coffins. There were the huge ovens – bigger these days, apparently, to accommodate the national tendency to obesity. They even have peepholes so that you can watch the engulfing flames that leave only a charred skeleton at the end. Then there are the machines that cremulate the ashes. (“Cremulate” is a term the chapel personnel have invented because “pulverise” is deemed a bit harsh.) And finally the rows of urns, each carefully labelled with the name of the deceased – a stark reminder of our common destiny.

Shivering in the presence of so many ghosts, I could understand why most people would rather not be reminded of the dust we will all become. Instead, it’s tempting to cling to fantasies. And that might explain why even those who would never describe themselves as religious – over 50 per cent of the population, according to the British Social Attitudes survey – tend to turn to God at this time.

That, of course, is a challenge for those of us conducting humanist funerals. There is no other rite of passage that so clearly separates the devout from the damned. The promises of glorious rebirth, heavenly choirs, meetings with the Maker, being reunited with loved ones – the comfort blankets of faith – are denied the unbeliever. So what can we offer?

“In the absence of God, we are placing the person who has died right at the heart of the ceremony,” says Isabel Russo. “We are not judging a person’s life with a view to their destination in the afterlife, rather we are reflecting and acknowledging the humanity of the life that has been lived and its impact, in all its light and shade.”

Indeed, Spellman warns that a belief in the next life can in itself be damaging to this one. “Our personal journeys are significant precisely because they are framed by a beginning and an end. We craft our significance between these universal bookends. Without them, we lose our sense of urgency, the deadline that propels us to live in a meaningful manner while we are able.”

But such cold reasoning can only go so far. It somehow isn’t capable of dispelling that naggingly absurd hope that death may not be inevitable after all.

A mullah, a Catholic priest and a rabbi were once asked what they’d like said at their own funeral. “That I tended the sick and comforted the poor,” said the priest. “That I led my flock to the way of righteousness and Allah,” said the mullah.

The rabbi thought for a moment, then said: “I’d like someone to say, ‘Wait, I think he just moved!’”

A Brief History of Death is published by Reaktion Books