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An Undertaker Writes

Being an occasional series in which we ask a leading undertaker to answer questions of concern from the general public.

#17 Media Vita In Morte Sumus

A serious business. When an undertaker comes involved, generally speaking, someone has died.

As an undertaker I am often asked: is there life after death, is cremation good for the environment and can I have my husband’s remains turned into an ashtray [he was a heavy smoker]? These are - properly understood - three quite separate questions and, for the sake of clarity, should be treated as such.

Commencing with the first and most straightforward, we can say with absolute certainty that it depends upon one’s point of view. According to most religions, there is indeed life after death [the so-called “good behaviour clause/incentive” - similar to a prison sentence review but with marginally higher cost/benefit ratios]. It should be stated, however, that thus far there is not a single shred of hard empirical evidence to support this assertion/hope/belief/proclamation/promise/expectation. It might be usefully considered to be an example of something theologians term "a matter of faith".

Whether life after death comes in a recognisable form is also subject to theological disputation [aka doctrinal dissimilarity, aka causus belli] - ranging from re-incarnation as a wildebeest, through non- or non-recognisable manifestation in a form currently unknown to science [including ectoplasm, funny smoke and “Aunt Tabitha’s hideous perfume smell”] to semi- or quasi-incarnate materialisation in the guise of an Ottoman prince surrounded by a tempting variety of either virgins [male fantasy] or non-delinquent and occasionally attentive husbands [maximum female expectation]. The fact that there is no “fixed” understanding of the exact nature of life after death [or any evidence for it] does not, of course, negate the concept per se. Indeed generations of coal mine owners, sundry capitalists and dyed-in-the-wool state socialists [as well as much Western Christian-Judaic philosophy] have depended upon it as the ultimate reward for a life well-lived. Happily for those keenest to promote the idea, no-one has yet come back from a distant realm to gainsay their assertions or reclaim their Sunday collection contributions.

Perhaps more definitively, since most life insurance companies pay out on irrefutable proof of death [after "a lot of paperwork" and an epic 14 year battle of attrition in which the “lump sum” is negotiated down to a fraction of its “assured value”] we can be pretty certain that the accountants, actuaries and loss-adjusters have figured the odds of a speedy return to life “as we know it”; making it highly unlikely that the person insured is returning to lodge an in-person appeal any time soon.

Turning to cremation, the answer must be a qualified yes. Whilst it is true that dark particulate matter can often be seen belching forth from the chimney of a less than well-maintained incinerator, fire is a great cleanser whilst the earth is dirty and has been variously described as damp, gritty, smelly, icky and even organic. Few worms survive a 250°C roasting whereas - along with myriad fungi, bacteria and other arthropods - they do live - and even thrive - in moist soil. Depending on one’s views of nature [whether or not, for example, one subscribes to the ha-ha theory of human-animal interaction] cremation may be preferred on economic*, ergonomic or moral grounds as well as [for those brainwashed by the current pre-school curriculum] an environmental basis.

*A recent survey of undertakers in the Greater Okeford Fitzpaine region suggests that the average cremation will set back a grieving [and understandably aggrieved] relative something in the region of £2,700 of which £1,900 is accounted for by the cost of sandwiches, sausage rolls, gin and tonics and other post-ceremony mood-lifting stratagems [eg bouncy castle, piñata and festive candles]. A burial on the other hand costs an average of £18,900, £18,000 of which covers the 25-year lease on a plot of prime Dorset real estate measuring 4 x 9 x 6 approx.

Just one of the interesting shapes into which the remains of a loved one can be transformed. These paperweights are an attractive addition to any occasional table.

Finally, with modern-day technology, it is possible to turn a loved one's [or relative's] ashes into a glass shape or ornament of choice. Popular are paperweights, door handles, vases, bookends, remote control holders and lamp-stands though more unusual requests are sometimes countenanced. I am relieved to report that, in a landmark ruling by the Dorset Undertakers and Funeral Director’s Association [DUFDA] Ethics, Morals and Scruples Committee a request from a Turlin Moor widow to turn her husband’s remains into a dildo - so that she could continue to “feel his presence” - was rejected on practical as well as ethical grounds. A spokesperson for Interments R’Us, Shillingstone said at the time that “whilst there were some objections in principle to the client's stated preference, there was also the not insignificant fact that what remained of Mr Little was insufficient to create a satisfactory fit. We explained to the client the magnitude of the problem and, in the end, even Mrs Little agreed it was insurmountable”.

NEXT TIME: Will my husband's ashes "bring on" my floribunda roses or should I persevere with bonemeal and is Track 15 of That's What I Call the 80s a suitable choice as the curtains close?


Our Burials, Funerary Rites and Non-standard Rituals correspondent Mort Ishan adds the following historical note:

Illustration from the Bradpole Book of the Dead showing that even the aristocracy [here Sir Barratt de Chambre-Separée and his wife Infrequenza] were not immune to the ravages of disease.

It is widely understood that during the Black Death, the Chivalric Code was expanded to include the injunction to “Give responsibly this Christmas and send them a coffin”. Incorporating as it does traditional knightly obligations with regard to thrift, practicality and consideration for others as well as a patrician concern for those in need, the phrase spoke to a deep-seated sense of the transience of life and was less a bon mot than a memento mori. It was a time of boom for undertakers, adversity as always proving the mother of invention. The need to manufacture an unusually large number of coffins raised the price of silk by more than 30,000% [the much-favoured Edward III Kingsize casket was said to use 12 yards for the lid alone] and may be responsible for the substitution of Polyester-based faux silk linings as well as [nearly 600 years later] the cardboard, wicker, bamboo, eco and [pre-Drexit] European willow casket. Little wonder that according to an entry in the Vicar of Lillington Parish Church’s Occasional Book, local undertakers had, by 1489, adopted the motto of “Tussis non est, quae te rapit. Loculus suus in te auferunt” ["It's not the cough that carries you off. It's the coffin they carry you off in"]. Several still mark their work with a similar inscription today.

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