Tuesday 15 September 2009

Bread, Salt, Mead and Honey

I’ve just returned from the funeral of Jane, who lived and died in poverty. No one in her circle of friends has any money to spare either and so a local authority funeral was arranged.

Because Jane lived and died in poverty her body spent a month in a hospital morgue while one of the richest countries in the world scrabbled around to find the £753 that it costs to dispose of a human body with studied bareness. Jane was blessed to live in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which provided a hearse and dignified undertakers. Had she not lived here, her coffin would have been deposited at the crematorium by van.

The priest allotted for pauper’s funerals could barely speak English and couldn’t find his way – and thus couldn’t lead us - around the funeral service. What he could do, however, was take the opportunity to proselytize and tell us that we would end up in paradise only if we would come unto Jesus. He wasn’t intentionally wicked, just hopeless and the kindest thought I can muster for him is that he will lie in bed tonight and wail with humiliation. He would not be chosen to run an affluent parish but he is good enough, apparently, for the very poor.

I was shocked afterwards to discover that a funeral funded by the State demands a Church of England service, but can see the good intent behind this imposition. A publicly funded funeral is the absolute last resort for people who die alone and without friends or for those of us who have absolutely no income or savings to fall back on: the dignity and solemnity due to royal dead is also afforded to people at the other end of the social scale.

The service can be very beautiful.


Personally I wouldn’t be restless in my grave if it was said over my body, but that’s because I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about and dealing with death and have my own philosophy on the matter. But it wouldn’t suit my family and friends to sit and listen to Christian liturgy with my very Pagan body on the catafalque, and since I know no one with £1,000+ to spare and haven’t got £1,000 lying about it’s likely that I too will have a state funded funeral. If, as most non-monotheists believe, funerals are for the living rather than the dead then having something that satisfies the bereaved rather than a Church they had nothing much to do with, seems important. Can this be achieved by having a friend read something less formal at some point? It feels token, a deviation allowed by a benevolent dictator.

I could take out a funeral plan and very good many of them are too. Bodies cost money to dispose of and the more we want someone else to do for us, the more we have to pay. The Natural Death Center is absolutely brilliant at helping to empower people who want to do as much as possible for their dead and a DIY funeral is guaranteed to be as meaningful as you like. But you have to plan, and plan now, because bereavement renders you pretty helpless and convention takes over.

What this has brought home to me is that income determines the religious form of a funeral. Whether or not this was the intent of the Church of England, in a multi-cultural society it’s no longer appropriate. So I can take up arms against a sea of Church and State bureaucracy, and by opposing it, go bonkers. More usefully, I can put some serious thought to how my funeral will be funded – with Samhain approaching this seems appropriate. I can beg you to think about, discuss and compose your own funeral as a Samhain project, and thus remove a great deal of weight from the people you love.

And tomorrow, Pete and I will carefully take the hair from Jane’s hair brush that, curiously, she specifically left us for some reason, and burn it with incense, rose petals, honey, salt, mead and bread, to mark her life and death in our own way with our own words.