Many of us die without any kind of ritual or funeral. Those unfortunate enough to die far from home, victim to the cruelties or vagaries of man or nature may be deprived of a ceremony of departure, but more usually humans need to mark the place and time of the death of a beloved, whether they are just one day old, or 100 years. Our history, as a species carrying out rituals celebrating the end of human life through ceremony, can be charted as far back as 60,000 years before the birth of Christ, which puts many of our existing faiths in an interesting and modest place on the map of world history…
There is a move to celebrate death in a new and more creative way, focused on the sacredness of the departed. For people wanting to do things this way the established faiths don’t always deliver. Yet free-flowing creative funerals are still encumbered by the way we’ve done them in the past… and it’s true to say just about any kind of ritual needs a beginning, middle and an end. The problem with these new kinds of funeral is that the tools — the readings, the words and the music that support the component parts of this three part structure, are not always there. When I started writing readings for funerals I didn’t realise that although I was creating ideas about unique people and circumstances of death, I was just writing content for the middle part of the funeral – www.funeralstoday.org
Now I am working on the beginning and the end readings, because it is so hard to find those bits, in fact near impossible. I have two obvious openings, one that was never intended for funerals, but has been used many times called Open the Heart, but it’s not suitable in some situations, so I wrote another, called The Moment of Opening.
It’s the closing words to the funeral that present a real problem. For those happy with tradition, The Lord’s Prayer is beautiful, but lots of people no longer resonate with biblical readings. For years now I’ve been using the Celtic Blessing (at the bottom of this page) but for some that doesn’t work either; it’s “the Son of Peace” and “God holding you in the hollow of His hand” that is just too much for some of us. So I change the words, but it still doesn’t always work. So I have set myself the tricky task of writing something that will bring spiritual and poetic closure to the service. Trouble is, the Celtic Blessing is hard to beat for sheer beauty and brilliance. There is a nice musical version called The Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter, which shows that it’s possible to churn out authentic sacred music in the 21st Century, although it must be said, these words have astonishing power when spoken aloud.
Deep peace of the running wave to you
Deep peace of the flowing air to you
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you
Deep peace of the shining stars to you
Deep peace of the Son of Peace to you
May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
May the rains fall softly upon your fields
Until we meet again…
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand
Sitting in a taxi listening to the news being read out, we were treated to a flabbergasting list of suffering and pain – shootings, despair, disease, death and destruction to name but a few. As in one voice (altogether now) the driver and I screamed “Enough! Enough!” It occurred to me that we don’t have to feel guilty about falling about with helpless laughter (thank you very much) and is it possible that all news is sad and sorrowful? With this in mind I turned my thoughts to the great literary tragedies that we have all been brought up on, and love so much, tales of sorrow, pain, death and destruction… so I decided to demolish them in spirit and sentiment in one fell swoop, and cheer myself up in these sorrowful times. Join me in this literary lurch down anti-lugubrious lane: The Picture of Doris Grey – A profoundly deep novel about Doris, a girl who keeps a Posy Simmonds cartoon of herself in the attic and stays young and beautiful for so long… that her name comes back in fashion.
Romeo and Jeremy – A story of two star-crossed gay folk in the fast lane who live happily ever after.
Rosemary and Juliet – The thrilling legend of two girls that run off to Brighton and stay on permanent holiday for the rest of their lives.
King Leer – Fable of an old geezer with a reputation for being an ogling oddball, who turns out to be a surreptitious sweety, loved by all.
Julius Squeezer – A historical drama set in a BBC cookery studio about an insouciant chef who invents a gracile grater that keeps all users in a state of elegant equilibrium and graceful glory.
The Rime of the Mincing Mariner – The first lines are: It is a mincing mariner – And He stoppeth one of three – “and where are you off to tonight Ducky… Or should I say… Miss Congeniality?” The Last line is And you know what sailors are….
Omelette, Prince of Danish Egg-heads.
Gertrude Jekyll and Charlie Dimmock- Hyde, an everyday horror story of gardens, starring and roses, lilacs, camellias, carnations, petunias and other double-flowered mutations.
OK so you didn’t smile? I give up. Look up “Things to Meditate on” in Google… and see if those cheer you up… tee hee… and hoho!
Yesterday I spent over two hours talking on 16 different local radio stations about cremations. The BBC had discovered that the cost of a cremation had gone up by a third in five years and wanted an interfaith minister’s take on this iniquitous hike in price, and they wanted it discussed during the Sunday morning ‘God’ slot.
Ten years ago pollution became a concern, so five years after that, the Government got its act together, and focused on the environmental contamination caused by incineration. So DEFRA, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, placed legal pressure on the UK’s 300 or so crematoria, forcing them to introduce heavy-duty filters to reduce the volumes of poisonous matter being pumped into air. Apart from the pernicious glues and MDF, the worst pollutant is mercury from the teeth of those cremated. Mercury is toxic, poisoning the kidneys, the brain, affecting the nervous system, and producing problems of many kinds, some known, some unknown. It’s particularly bad for babies and young people. Mercury also travels great distance in the clouds, and then drops on us all… so we are talking about a serious public health issue… we are talking about extreme air pollution, of a dangerous and invisible kind. But the introduction of these mercury and toxic inhibitors over the past few years has resulted in a massive increase in the cost of cremations, which means that in the land of austerity, at a time of austerity, people with serious financial problems face even more tragic problems. They must tackle the loss of a loved one, as well as face up to the enormous cost of a standard funeral – between £3,500 and £5,500 depending on the funeral director one chooses.
The BBC and its 16 stations wanted to know what an interfaith minister made of this, and because this topic was dropped into the Sunday morning God slot, it seemed appropriate for questions to be asked. There was a lot of interest about other affordable options other than cremation, and I didn’t have time to discuss them all, but there are funeral directors out there trying to help people save money, and they can be found. There is something called direct cremation or delivery only, which is the most basic service possible, there is the possibility of selling ones body for science, and there is also a small grant from the Government – £700 for those on benefits. Burial, on the whole is not usually cheaper, unless one is a regular churchgoer, and the local cemetery has space. Burial is however a much more ecologically responsible alternative, and there are some beautiful woodland burial sites around. There is also burial on private land and something very new called Promessa. It is a good idea to think about planning ahead for ones funeral.
But there is another side to this altogether… we are talking about air pollution, and we are talking about everybody in this country. I reckon that air quality is something that the Government should take on as a fundamental responsibility, and the cost of keeping the air clean and our corresponding public health should not be dropped on those that are holding funerals for their loved ones. Why do we, ‘Joe Public’ always have to pay for everything? Surely the air that everyone breathes is the responsibility of the Government that taxed us all during our working lives? I commented on this during the interviews, but was not in a position to rant against this Government that wants us to pay for everything, even those institutions and welfare safety-nets that were created before this bunch of public school boys we call ”a Government” was ever born.
Perhaps HM Government should consider this: the rain of pollution falls on everyone, rich and poor alike — it does not discriminate… The quality of the air we breathe is a nation wide concern.
…But it helps. At the moment the breeze is not as I would like it. It’s cold for August, and walking through Brighton the levels of pollution have been bashing my lungs, and probably those of many others, too. On the allotment the breeze is exquisite when the wind is warmer – you get fabulous wafts of lavender, purple buddleia (yes, you can smell the purple) sweet peas and Verbena. In the wonderful world of mindfulness I dream of the floaty journeys of bees and butterflies, drawn by the most wonderful array of perfumes imaginable, and on our allotment these charming visitors get everything pure and unsprayed. It’s the breeze that carries the delicious scents, plus the seeds and the invisible particles of dust that could be anything. It’s the breeze that cools us down if one has been doing too much weeding (removing the germinated seeds) and it’s the breeze that moves so many poets and songwriters, to create everything from ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ to ‘Ride Like the Wind’.
The gentle wind is a wafty force of potential that drifts into our subconscious in a dreamy and inexplicable way. The breeze is in us and around us if you give credit to the nature of breathing. Perhaps this is why the songs about the breeze connect at the deepest level. Recently I came to appreciate the voice of Nina Simone, a sort of hooty warbling that had never done it for me… but I had to reconsider… when I heard her amazing rendition of ‘Wild is the Wind’. It is fabulous, but still (in my view) not as great as Shirley Horn’s version, which is a double entitled ‘Come A Little Closer/Wild is the Wind.’ This is breath-taking art. Also George Michael’s version of this wonderful song is definitely worth trying out… give them a try… and let me know what you think. And I say it again… you don’t have to be an environmentalist or Green to love the breeze — the pure, unpolluted breeze of nature… but it most certainly helps. Keep wafting!