Do it yourself cremation
Death tends to play a big part in a Classics degree. Ancient poetry and drama is full of murder, suicide, assassination, contested burials. Archaeologists love nothing better than a cemetery to dig up. At Cambridge we have a whole third year course on the topic, which covers death from every possible angle – from Socrates to Trajan’s column (which, of course, to return to this contested subject, contained Trajan’s ashes in its base).
One of the first things the students learn is that with the exception of emperors, a few other dignitaries and the occasional new-born babies, Romans were always buried outside the city. Hence those roads like the Appian Way outside Rome, lined with tombs.
With a nostalgic image of an English village in mind (graveyard nestling next to the village green. . .), we tend to treat this as a slightly odd, unfamiliar practice. In fact, arrangements in modern Cambridge are strikingly similar. The crematorium is located outside the city limits, on the main A14 road towards Huntingdon.
Once upon a time this may have been a peaceful green-field site. Now the grieving friends and relatives are forced to negotiate one of the most accident prone highways in the country (perhaps not all that different from the Appian Way in that respect). I dread to think how, on exit, they tearfully weave their way into the speeding lanes of trucks.
Black humour would suggest that this was a way of the crem drumming up its own trade.
When you hit 50, you find yourself at more funerals than weddings (or, to put it frankly, more of your co-evals are dying than getting hitched). Last Monday, I made my way up the A14 to the ceremony for an old friend who had died in her 80s. In fact, even though I know the route perfectly well, I actually missed the exit off the dual carriageway and had to take the next one and double back. So I didn’t arrive in the chapel till the coffin had already been carried in.
As always, once I was there, I found myself thinking about the logistics of the whole operation (displacement activity, I guess). It’s hard not to admire the seamless organisation – and the timing -- which lets one grieving party out of the side door as another one enters through the front. Someone must spend their life planning other peoples’ funerals with split second care – and just occasionally it must go embarrassingly wrong, with the wrong audience around the wrong coffin.
As for the clerics in charge, I’m a bit more ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m full of admiration again for anyone who can turn up and even begin to choreograph a fitting funeral ceremony in front of a group of people they don’t know, many of whom are feeling more upset than they have ever been before.
On the other, I’m none too keen on some of the packaging. I don’t just mean the impersonality that creeps out from time to time (“I never actually met Harry. . .” as the standard admission from the pulpit goes). It’s more a question of the default Christianity that takes over unless you work very hard to stop it. Under this regime, even the most questioning agnostic is likely to be dispatched with a chorus of claims about their future bliss in paradise on the other side of the pearly gates. Given half a chance, the well-meaning cleric will even hint at death bed conversion. “I know that Sarah was not a church goer, but when I saw her in her last illness, I sensed a new spirituality . . .” Of course, a Christian ceremony is just fine for Christians – but not when it scoops up everyone else who can’t actually claim another religion, or whose relatives don’t have the instant presence of mind to explain exactly where their granny actually stood on the God question.
I’m pleased that I was canny enough to see this coming when my irreligious mother died. In a fit of bravery, over-confidence or pride looking for a fall, I decided to conduct the committal myself. The undertakers and the staff at Shrewsbury crematorium were a bit taken aback to start with. But funerals are not like weddings: anyone is allowed to do them, and say what they like. Once they saw I wasn’t to be dissuaded, they gave me every help (right down to insider tips on how and when to push the button to start the coffin on its way).
I wish more people would take funerals into their own hands.