What makes us human?
This is a question that has always fascinated philosophers and psychologists, since we as a species first became self-aware, and it is often around the most intense and universal experiences we face that we can most clearly see patterns of behaviour that we share.
Our rituals around death and dying may be hugely varied throughout the world, and have been influenced by social culture, cognitive history and the dominant religion, but what can we learn about ourselves from the more innate instincts and emotions we feel that can be seen around the time of death? Many of these come right to the fore around the time that someone dies, and as one wise old funeral director told me, when I first started in the business, a death brings out the best and the worst in everyone.
We are deeply connected to each other as social creatures. Our sense of self, who we are and what meanings life holds for us are all informed by our personal relations in all forms. We become the reflection we are in the eyes of another, a feedback system so profound that our whole identity can hinge not on who we are but how we are seen.
The total and final absence of the person as a reference point in our lives means that the process of grieving is not only for whom we have lost, but what we have lost in them. A part of us dies with that person and as humans who not only resist change, but also fear pain and loss, a particular kind of ‘ownership’ or ‘repossession’ of the person who has died comes about in not just literal but metaphorical ways too.
You will all have heard stories of fighting about money and inheritance when someone dies, often between siblings, and second families – times when families have torn each other apart over possessions and the smallest of meaningful items and this can create long term separations, court battles and exclusion of family members. Never pretty and deeply upsetting, these rifts cause huge harm as people close ranks and exhibit the most fundamental and primitive human instincts – those of tribalism and rights of territory. These fights can also develop over the details of the funeral ceremony; the music, who speaks, what to say and the amount of religious content to be used, as people seek ownership over the process. Often the person who has been around the least in the months or years before the death, becomes the loudest voice…covering their guilt with a present opportunity to make up for it in organising the funeral. This, and many other kinds of guilt can be shunted into an overpowering sense of owing something to the dead…how much to spend, what kind of coffin they should have and doing right by the person who has died. Differences of opinion between family members can be taken incredibly personally and opposition given to decisions which are clearly just taken to spite someone else – a act of rage towards another. A funeral becomes payback time in a very real sense.
In our work, we have witnessed very distressing stories of possession and even theft of ashes, so common that crematoria now need to see proof of identification for a the next of kin in order to collect them directly.
One reason for the sense of ownership that happens with mortal remains is that there is very real need we have as humans, to have some tangible remains of a person to hold on to. We do not ‘get over’ a loss, but rather make it a part of our present lives. Physical remains are a part of this constant reminder of what is left of a life. A sense that they mattered…and still do. This goes against any logical examination considering that ashes are nothing more than calcium and minerals but they become a symbolic representation that not all is lost of a person, that this person can therefore be possessed, fought over and can ultimately represent the spoils of battle and evidence of victory.
But it is not just ambivalence towards other members of the family that can surface, nor a real fear of the pain of loss. We fight for the remains of a person as a way of holding on to ourselves, our very identity, and our personal and familial historical myths. We are not simply ‘what we eat’ but ‘who we have loved’.
We had our first call from Mrs Stares when we were just about to go on holiday, but she was very keen to get things moving for the funeral for her sister, who had died during the previous week, and had no husband or children. She was quite young, just 61, and had died from cirrhosis of the liver…a drinker….and although they had not seen much of Dannie over the last 10 years, due to issues with her lifestyle, her extended family would be taking this on and wanted a lovely funeral for her, near her old home in Gloucester. Mrs Stares explained how hard the last years had been for all of them, with Dannie and her drinking, and proceeded to complain vehemently about her rather difficult friends who were already clearing out her flat, taking her things and claiming that various household items had been promised to them. One friend in particular was being a real problem. Jane. Jane was being obstructive, Jane was taking stuff, Jane was trying to organise the funeral, Jane had moved into the flat, Jane had no rights and was really taking advantage of the situation, as she had done for many years, since meeting her after Dannie had moved to Bristol. She was after her money.
Apparently, she had also been rather a bad influence on Dannie, dragging her off on drinking sessions, with Dannie picking up the tab, as she had recently been made redundant with a large payoff. Jane had taken her for a ride and seen her vulnerability. Slowly Dannie’s life had gone downhill and she had lost nearly everything by the time she died.
Mrs Stares explained that her family were stepping back in now, doing all the things they wished they had been able all those years of relative estrangement, giving Dannie love they had all felt for her, in a last act of kindness. A proper family funeral, in her home town, back where Dannie belonged. With those who knew her best.
As her tale progressed it was clear that they very much remembered Dannie as she was in her early years…and told stories of a lively young woman, talented and fun, and although she had always been a bit of a party girl, she had been right at the heart of a family who loved her.
We were quite touched that the family had stepped in for Dannie and all the estrangement of the last years had been forgiven without question, and they would step up and pay for her funeral. We explained that we were away for a few days but would be on the phone if we were needed.
All so far, so good.
What we not so happy about was that Mrs Stares then announced that it was to be family only at the funeral and when it had been arranged, we were not to give out the details to anyone else.
One way of looking at who we are, our ‘sense of self’ is to imagine we are built of Lego bricks with a new one painstakingly added with every experience and life event to create a myriad of colours, and somehow coming together in a loose whole, a completely unique shape, composition and form every one of us. As we go through life we build a sense of ego on all these collective unique experiences and these make us who we are. Every brick is integral to the whole and holds a special place.
The very basis of these are our childhood perceptions and memories, right at the foundation. Mrs Stares shared a childhood and much of her life with her sister, and their relationship, as she saw it, was fundamental to her own sense of identity. Danny, her older sister was someone she had looked up to, and this family myth of an idyllic childhood was something Mrs Stares could now reclaim, erasing the lost years as if they never happened. Dannie would forever be in some way the young woman she had known when the two shared everything, be seen just the way Mrs Stares wanted to remember her. A person that reflected the way that Mrs Stares imagined herself. A picture that could not be changed whatever the evidence or her very own place in things would be called into question.
At 6.30am the next day we got a call from Mrs Stares. There was a problem.
Jane had registered the death and had already asked another funeral company to organise the service. Dannie had been collected from the hospital and gone to their chapel of rest completely against the instructions of the family. How could this have happened when Jane was not the legal Next of Kin? Mrs Stares was off to a solicitor that very morning and would fight this terrible woman every step and would have an injunction served immediately to stop whatever arrangements were being made. She was furious and on the phone for at least an hour, complaining to us that the funeral had been arranged at a Bristol Crematorium, the family had been excluded from all input and told not to get involved.
We cancelled our morning boat trip and called the other funeral director.
It turned out that Jane HAD claimed she was the next of kin, had somehow managed to register the death and collect the death certificate, and then had apparently lied on the application forms for cremation. She had told the funeral director Dannie had no interested family, and also told them she had legal proof of being next of kin with a document drawn up with Dannie and herself at a solicitor. This poor funeral director was quite shocked, and when we told them that Mrs Stares was seeking an injunction, they agreed to cancel the arranged date for the funeral, to await further instructions.
Mrs Stares in turn, was advised she could get an injunction and the police went to see Jane to let her know.
Later that day we received a rather elated call from Mrs Stares. Jane had retreated from everything to do with the funeral and Mrs Stares was keen that we proceed with new funeral arrangements as soon as possible. We were to collect Dannie from the other funeral director and go ahead with a date in Gloucester. We decided to just come home and get on with it, feeling that justice had been served and quite triumphant that we had been able to help Mrs Stares, despite losing our holiday.
The story was actually a lot more complicated in the conversations and legal aspects than we have said here, but suffice to say, Jane was not heard from again by the family. A date was arranged for a private funeral and Mrs Stares won her battle to bring Dannie home.
When we brought Dannie back to our mortuary, we gently unwrapped her to prepare her for the coffin. We took the cover off her face and immediately our hearts sunk like a stone.
Dannie was quite masculine looking, she had very short hair, little round glasses and earrings – two Venus symbols locked together and we realised the truth of the situation in that moment.
Jane was not Dannie’s ‘annoying’ friend…she was her partner.
Article by Angela Ward
Go Simply Funerals
This article was orginally published in More to Death, the official magazine to The Natural Death Centre.