Four Funerals and the Odd Wedding

[Part 1]

No-one wants to think about planning a funeral. Most of us are fearful, vulnerable and unprepared because we organise a funeral so infrequently. A painful & confusing task. One of the most important yet difficult things we face at this time of bereavement.

Sue Gill / John fox The deaD GOOD FUNERALS BOOK
Cathy Howell spreading Trevor Howells ashes

Coping with one death of a founder member in the early days of any intentional community wouldn’t be easy, Having to deal with two in fairly quick succession was a huge blow to People in Common. Trevor Howell died in a freak motorcycle accident in 1976 followed very soon after by Ray Tomlinson a paraplegic who died after crashing his invalid car into a brick wall.

The community tried to take control of Trevor’s funeral arrangements. But struggled to find anywhere that would allow them to hold any sort of non-religious service – eventually being helped by the local Quakers who let the group use their Meeting House.The funeral was well attended and money collected to further projects that Trevor had been working on. Ray had been a close friend of Trevor’s and it is thought that his death may have been suicide rather than just an accident.His funeral was a much quieter affair. Cathy left the group soon after with her new born daughter Laura. They returned four or five years later, once it was clear that The Mill project was going ahead, to spread the ashes on the field at The Mill and plant a fruit tree in Trevor’s memory. Again a smattering of old friends turned up for the event. In contrast Ray’s ashes were spread by me and Barbara one lunchtime after finding them in an old sideboard where they had been lying forgotten for a number of years – Barbara said “Ray would have appreciated it!”

My only experience of death at the time was that of my grandparents. My grandfather was a lay preacher at Uppingham road baptist church in Leicester and I’m told he used to lay out bodies of local people after they had died. He died when I was 10 and in keeping with the prevailing custom at the time I didn’t attend his funeral – which for years left me with no real resolution to my relationship with him. Something I learned to live with over time. One day on the way to school I did the classic seeing a figure in the distance that I was sure was him. And for weeks after his death when visiting my grandparents house I convinced myself that he was somehow laid out in a coffin in the front room. It was made all the more poignant by the fact that I shared the same birthday with him which meant every year I would be reminded of him on my birthday, My experience of my grandmothers death and funeral was very different. I was 19 or 20 when she died and while she was bedridden beforehand I spent some time chatting with her. At the funeral service the preacher told a joke about her deafness and I laughed out loud – not something you are really supposed to do at a funeral. Later at the reception the preacher asked me who I was – as I obviously knew her well.

It would be years later that People in Common would experience another death. A couple years after we had moved into The Mill Stan, Barbara’s father, sadly died after making a somewhat epic journey from his home in London to move into a nursing home nearby in the village . I remember Stan had a bit of a history of making epic journeys to East Lancs. When I first met him he had just done the 225 mile trip from Walthamstow to Burnley on his Honda 70 moped. Stopping off for a break at Some People in Leicester on his way. Stan was a woodworker / cabinetmaker. Had made wooden propellers for Spitfires during the war and did fine marquetry work. Over the years he visited us he taught me a number of tricks of the carpenters trade – how to get hammer marks out of a piece of wood using a domestic steam iron! He was a socialist and a union man and was always supportive of what we were trying to do. As he got older Barbara had tried to persuade him to come up and live nearby, but like many he left making a decision all too late and he died the day after making the long journey one last time.

  • Poets will do Cabinet placements..
  • Every town will have its ‘salon’ bar, with a new art school attached.
  • Doctors will prescribe saxophones and sable paint brushes
  • Undertakers will paint portraits on coffins

John Fox: A Plea for Poetry 1991

In 1994 I spotted in ad for a weekend course at Barhaugh Hall, Alston in Cumbria being run by Welfare State International theatre company on ‘Funerals – and How to Make Them More Personal’. Not quite sure now what made me decided to go on it. Maybe just the connection with them having had such a stimulating time on their Winter School previously. Or perhaps it was the unsatisfactory experience of the group having tried to take control of what happens when someone dies. Or even some sort of memory of my grandfathers role as a lay preacher laying out bodies.

Carlisle woodland burial site

The weekend didn’t disappoint. There was an interesting cross section of participants; a vicar, a poet, artists and some ordinary Joe’s like me. We had a session with the head of ‘Bereavement Services’ at Carlisle Council. Where they were way ahead of most places with their attitude towards people wanting to individualise funeral services. We got a tour of Carlisle cemetery. Where we saw one of the first woodland burial sites in the country. Plus a gravestone in memory of “Grumpy Old Grandad”.

We then went on to have a behind the scenes tour of the crematorium – quite what does happen after the coffin disappears through the curtains and we all troop out at the end of the service? Not a lot as it turns out. Coffins are kept on shelves to be burnt later. They are checked for any ‘dangerous’ grave goods. A check needed due to past experience; Coconuts are quite common and explode in the ovens. Also a decorators coffin contained tins of paint which also made a mess of the cremation. Plenty of dark humour among the staff who showed us round and strangest of all the bucket of melted metal body parts left over after cremations that no one seems to see as a part of the deceased and are so sent for recycling.

There were two artists, Caroline Menis & Lorna Graves who had been commissioned to paint a cardboard coffin each as an example of how artists might get involved in making a funeral more personal.

`No pine here. No brass (or even plastic) handles. No overdone solemnity. We are talking paint-your-own-coffin courses and funeral corteges going on pub crawls – and Caroline Menis’s custom-built coffin. It features painted birds and shells; moons, stars and starfish. Bright swirls of colour. And it’s made of biodegradable cardboard. Caroline, a Sheffield-based artist, created this “personalised” coffin for a sea enthusiast. It will be on show this weekend at a conference in the Lake District called “Funerals and How to Make Them More Personal”. The assumption is that, all too often, all too sadly, personal is just what funerals aren’t.

Article in the Sheffield star 1994

I came back from the weekend pretty fired up about DIY funerals and really wanting to be able to put at least some of what I’d picked up into practice. But you can’t really go round wishing someone would die so you can help make their funeral more meaningful.

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