I never anticipated wanting to be burnt on top of a hill when I died, but then again, I never anticipated becoming an undertaker either. Such is the transformative, inspirational power of The Natural Death Centre. Once you start thinking outside the box, and puns aside, what I mean by that is once you realise that how we deal with our dead in this country is not as prescriptive as you once imagined, then the imagination races.
Don’t need to have a vicar hold the ceremony? Then do it yourself. I can bury my dad in his garden? Let’s start digging! Finding out about these things, through my now battered and worn copy of the third edition of The Natural Death Handbook, changed the direction of my life, and led me to set up as an undertaker and celebrant, spreading the word that a formal religious funeral was only necessary if that was what you wanted, otherwise, well, how would you like to say goodbye? What would serve you in your grief? The media focuses on things it considers wacky: specialist coffins, themed funerals filled with jokes and laughter, everyone wearing pink, and while things like this are all part of throwing off the shackles of convention, of personalising what had become a one size fits all ceremony, there comes a time when we have to get serious again. For all of the insistence that funerals become a ‘celebration,’ truth is, for most people, death is still not to be celebrated, it is one of the saddest moments of their lives; they are starting to let go of those they love, starting a process of grief that may never leave them. Insisting that everyone only focuses on the positive can make the bereaved feel lonely and guilty, emotions that hover eagerly in the wings to exploit our vulnerability at the best of times.
Most of the funerals I direct and take are non-religious. This means that we have to do without some of the familiar comfort and beauty that religion offers.
There is a temptation to fill that space with lots of other stuff; music, poems, slide shows of photographs, and while all of this is good and helpful done in the right way, sometimes, simplicity is best. That is why burial is so profoundly moving. Whatever else happens in the ceremony, there is a moment when it gets real, when a coffin or shroud is lowered into the earth, and at that moment, everyone is paying attention, everyone gets it. That’s what we aim for with our ceremonies, a moment of shared reality, an experience that is as genuine and honest as anything in human life can be. By doing this, by sharing together a moment of truth, our grief can progress naturally, instead of wrapping itself around regret and missed opportunities. We can begin to actually feel it.
Creating the same effect in a crematorium is more difficult.
Don’t get me wrong, we do as many cremations as we do burials, and the ceremonies we create with families and perform there we feel just as proud of, but keeping it real as Ali G says, is more difficult when faced with the municipal feel of most of them, not to mention the ridiculous time restraints. When I heard about Davender Ghai’s campaign to re legalise outdoor funeral pyres my heart leapt. When I researched it more, and discovered that outdoor cremation is not just a Hindu ritual, but something from our own cultural heritage, a way of dealing with our dead that stretches back to Stonehenge and beyond, I knew I had found a way that I wanted to go. It merged all the things I love about burial; the elemental honesty, the simplicity, a shared ritual with some of my other loves; drama, an all night party, a spectacle, a bloody great bonfire. So, although I know it’s not mine to arrange or perform, that falls to my children, should they find themselves able to, but since you’re asking, here’s how I would like it to be. Summer, midsummer, the time of my birth. On top of a hill. Carry me up as dusk falls.
Put me on top of an enormous pile of dry wood, built by someone who knows about fires. Make it from different types of wood, chosen for it’s aromatic smell, or it’s colour when burning, or it’s heat. Remember aesthetics at all times. Have me in a coffin or a shroud. This isn’t about forcing anyone to see my body burn, I don’t want to disgust people; I want to move them. Light it as it gets dark. Let the people who love me the most light it. Have someone in charge of logistics, to feed the fire with fuel, manage it’s controlled collapse. Stay all night. Sing, dance, cry, laugh. Party. Drink and eat and stay warm. Say what you want, but let the flames do most of the talking. Come the next day, when it has burnt for hours and hours, have someone with a big heart and experience of death collect my bones. Bury them if you want, or throw them into the sea, or turn them into art, I won’t mind, I won’t be there.
Since you’re asking.