I have recently stepped down from being a trustee of The Natural Death Centre Charity, largely because Claire and I have finally managed to open a natural burial ground with the marvellous Sharpham Trust, and we need to give that all of our concentration.
The Natural Death Centre inspired us to become undertakers. I owe it my vocational direction, my life’s work, and it showed me the way to heal my own grief. I am particularly grateful for the chance to have co-written and co-edited the latest edition of The Natural Death Handbook, and I hope all who have read it – and read previous editions – will feel my colleagues and I carried the blazing torch a few feet further into the darkness, spluttering and guttering perhaps, but illuminating all the same. It has been a genuine privilege.
I thought I would let my final musings on behalf of the charity be about an issue which remains central to its philosophy:
For the past three times the event has been held, we have been very kindly invited to have a stand at the National Funeral Exhibition, the ‘Las Vegas-in-a-warehouse’ style catwalk upon which the funeral industry struts it’s gaudy bling. It is more than just an array of dazzlingly weird new products, £90,000 hearses and seminars on facial reconstruction with wax; it is a chance for the funeral world to meet, the various large characters that inhabit it to emerge, mingle and, well, get a little bit pissed as well.
Twenty years ago, the idea of The Natural Death Centre being at such an event would have been as unthinkable as Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness sharing a joke as they jointly govern Northern Ireland, but things do change, more than we can ever really imagine and so we find ourselves not only present, but engaged and even warmly greeted by a surprising number of forward thinking funeral directors who think the scrutiny we give to the industry is needed and welcome.
Of course, there are many who stride past hurriedly, eyes narrowed and fixed upon the ‘Ashes to Diamond’ stand, management from some of the, ahem, larger chains who suddenly remember a pressing engagement at the other end of the hall when they see our name, but by and large we are greeted with warmth and open mindedness, even if it is simply to stop and engage in some mild ideological banter.
Not so the angry French embalmer who swept up to us, exuding that haughty Gallic fury that only the French can make seem attractive. His ire was directed at our stance on embalming, a practice we are against, a fairly uncompromising position we have maintained consistently since the charity’s early days.
We were wrong, he insisted, to tar the process and the chemicals as dangerous. It was the lackadaisical attitude employed by the British that was at fault. Used with much more delicacy and skill, embalming was no more dangerous than any industrial process, but the British light heartedness towards these desperately carcinogenic chemicals meant that early deaths from cancer from mishandling them were inevitable. We, the NDC, were doing the wider global embalming industry a great disfavour by attacking it and needed to get our facts straight.
Maybe he is right. I’m no scientist. My knowledge of embalming is down to having seen it done about ten times, having a layman’s understanding of the chemicals involved, reading of the early deaths from rare cancers of various embalmers, and listening to cheery little asides from them like: “I don’t ever get any colds you know,” and “Of course, the first proper whiff permanently burns all the hairs in your nose and lungs clean off!” which sort of lends a credence to our French critic’s point of view.
The Environment Agency isn’t that bothered either. They think that by the time they enter the ground, when a body decays, chemicals contained in them are all but neutralised. There are even a number of embalming products that just may replace formaldehyde, the main preservative involved, with a green alternative. Maybe in the future it will be possible to embalm a body to the standard that they expect in the US with no detrimental effect to either the environment or the person doing the procedure.
And we would still be, forgive me, dead against it.
I have been an undertaker for nearly fourteen years now, a ‘green’ one, though we would argue that the term extends far more into the realm of the social and psychological than it might at first appear. Literally, this means we use far fewer chemicals than our traditional counterparts. We never embalm, but we also encourage far more contact with the body than usual. We think that returning again and again into the presence of the person who has died gives enormous comfort to the bereaved. More important than comfort, we believe it serves them, it allows them to come to terms with the enormity of what has happened.
Anyone who has had someone they love die knows that there is a curious unreality to the experience. You can be told the news and totally believe it and understand it on an intellectual level, but somewhere deep inside, let’s risk a cliché and say inside your heart, there can be a voice saying No! No! No! over and over again. It’s not rational, often not even conscious, but death is such an unthinkable concept that rationality is the first thing thrown out of the window.
Seeing the person as they really are, spending time with them may sound like an astonishingly painful thing to do and most grieving people try to avoid it by saying they want to remember them as they were, but if gently encouraged and supported, given time and cups of tea and a room which feels like a room they might have in their own house, then a process can begin which can radically effect the quality of their grief for years to come, the beginning of acceptance.
There is a strong sense of paternalism in the funeral industry. A feeling that the public needed to be protected from the reality of death. Some of this is good old fashioned entrenched protectionism, but much of this comes from a genuine belief that most people aren’t up to the truth. We disagree.
For fourteen years we have been gently leading families into the presence of their dead; unadorned, not filled with chemicals that smooth out their wrinkles and give their cheeks a sunkissed holiday glow, not polyfilled with wax, but dead: skin cold, eyes sunk, grey, the spark that animated them undeniably extinguished and yet filled with a beauty that comes from being part of a universal truth, the truth about our transitory existence, the lightning flash that is our lives. We know this, all of us, but so rarely are we allowed to sit with it.
One of the fundamental ideas behind embalming, aside from the short term preservation of the body, is to make the dead look like they have just fallen asleep. The idea behind this is well meaning, but misguided. In attempting to protect someone from the unprotectable, by presenting someone dead as looking spookily alive, viewers of the body are being set up to feel cognitive dissonance, the distressing feeling of trying to believe two simultaneous but contradictory ideas. We know they are dead, so why do they look so well? This dissonance can rattle down through the years, subtle, influential, shaping the way we mourn our dead, sugaring a pill that none the less sticks in our throats.
And then there is the violence of the procedure.
I write this in the week in which a soldier has been brutally and publicly butchered on the streets of London, and for millions of people around the world, death comes like this.
We cling to the idea of a good death, and that idea shifts and changes with the culture we live in. For the Victorians, it was a lucid farewell, imparting words of love and wisdom. Increasingly for us, it is an unconscious one, pain free, perhaps even unawareness for the dying person of what is actually occurring. The truth is that death is not one moment, but a process that can take weeks. Biologically, it also continues after our own definitions of death – cessation of heart beating, no brain activity – have been reached, with the various cells in our body continuing to futilely divide, getting hotter for a while until the message from on top reaches them. The line is not clear.
And this is where we step into the unknown, all of us. Beyond this point, nobody; doctors, priests, professors or psychics have any idea whether the absence of life in the body means the departure of everything, personality, spirit, or brace yourself – soul. What nearly all cultures agree on is that in the right circumstances, we should give the dead the benefit of doubt and let them be as much as we can, performing simple acts of kindness and respect.
There are some currently unavoidable procedures that are done to our dead bodies. If there is any suspicion as to how we died, then quite rightly a thorough examination of the body in the form of a post mortem is required. But post mortems are not performed routinely, and there is change afoot to limit them.
Our dead deserve, if possible, that time outside time, a dimension of which we have no knowledge whatsoever, to gently sit with what may be a necessary disentanglement of body and soul. They don’t always get this, this gentle peace, but if we let go off the intrusive and unnecessary tradition of embalming our dead, who knows what favours we are doing them, as well as ourselves.