What are funerals for?

18 08 2011

In the dim and distant past I studied Zoology and I have retained an interest in what can broadly be described as sociobiology and in evolutionary psychology. I say this by way of background to this next statement, ” I know what funerals are for”.

At a very basic level it satisfies the hygiene need to dispose of dead bodies. Animals moving from one place to another as they follow their prey or the seasons can simply leave their dead behind.  As we became social animals, living in settled communities, the dead had to be removed from the community to prevent the spread of disease from flesh decaying in the African sun.

At a human level it is a ritual to denote the end of life. As a species we are inordinately fond of ritual; birthdays, marriages, coming of age ceremonies, rites of passage, funerals and the rest all mark transitions of different sorts.

So I know what funerals are for.

What I don’t understand is why they are the way they are.

Several years ago I attended a funeral for the infant son of a friend. Seeing a young father walk down the aisle carrying the tiny coffin of his baby son was the most heart-rending thing I have ever witnessed. The church service was followed by another service at the crematorium and agony was piled upon agony as the coffin disappeared beyond the curtains.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a friends mother. A death easier to come to terms with than the death of a child, perhaps, but still a day fraught with grief and despair. Agony as the hearse arrived at the house, heartbreak as we followed to the crematorium, further pain as the coffin was carried into the chapel and the final hurt as the curtains closed around it.

Why does this ritual have to have so many layers of suffering. It is as if we want to inflict pain on ourselves with these repeated stabs to the heart.

My question, therefore, is do we need to see the coffin at all?

Would it not be better to let the process of cremation run it’s course and take delivery of an urn? Or for a burial to take place, followed by a meeting at the graveside for loved ones? In either case only a single moment of hurt to cope with and each could be followed by a celebration of the life of the person lost to us?

Asking what funerals are for is a genuine question. Maybe a better one is who are funerals for?

Funerals are for those left behind.

I know that when I am dead I do not want any further suffering to be visited upon my family and friends. I don’t want them to have the pain upon pain of the various stages of the funeral process. I’d actually be happy for my body to be left on a hillside for the fox and the crow – for my body to be part of the circle of life when I am finished with it. Not ashes to ashes or dust to dust but flesh to flesh.  When my neighbours horse died it got taken to the local safari park to feed to the lions. Perfectly sensible and less expensive than a burial, cremation or the glue factory.

I suspect that those I leave behind will not be happy for that to happen. And the possibility of walkers coming across a half-eaten corpse probably makes it a non-starter. But why not? Why do those of us left feel the need to heap agony upon agony at the many different stages of the process?

Coming to terms with death is never going to be easy for those left behind but I really do not understand the need to inflict the further suffering that our present rituals deliver.

As I said, my question is a genuine one so your thoughts/comments will be appreciated.


50 going on 15

15 08 2011

While driving to work I heard a most remarkable true life story about a woman who went to bed aged 32 and woke up aged 15.

To explain, her physical body was still 32 years old but she had lost every single memory that she’d had from the age of 15 years onwards. So she felt 15. In her head she was 15. In the mirror she was 32.

What must that be like. Part of your life would have been stolen. As we work our way through life we gather memories that create a coherent narrative. This story builds as our bodies age. Both occur in parallel but with memory lost the body reflects the passage of time but the mind does not.

When I look in the mirror I see a middle aged woman, which is OK because that is what I am, with 50 years of memories. When I can’t see myself, when I do not see my 50 year old body I still feel the same as I always did. Or at least I don’t think of myself as an old person. I’m not aware of any changes in the way I think and feel. I’m sure that there must be some changes but they are not as obvious to me as the physical changes.

It is only when people I know and think of as being old turn out to be the same age as me that I am confronted with the fact that I must look just like them and people looking at me would see me as being like them, old!

Inside I am timeless but imagine being a teenager looking out on your adult self.

What dreams, hopes, expectations did you have?

Would you be a disappointment to yourself?

Would you be able to look yourself in the eye and smile?

Once the woman in the story had come to terms with what had happened to her, had accepted that she had lost 15 years of memeories, she used it as an opportunity to change her life.

She could see, and not just physically, what she had become. From the behaviours of those around her she could see that, in her own words, she had become ” a bit of a martyr “. She would always be at the beck and call of everyone else, always trying to keep everyone happy. This was not what she had planned and wasn’t something that the 15 year old in her was prepared to accept. So she changed the way that she interacted with others in her life in order to redress the balance between what she had wanted to be and what she had become.

But we do not have to undergo a traumatic meory loss to make these changes. We can recreate the scenario.

Imagine being a teenager looking out on your adult self

What would your 15 year old self think of you now? If there is anything that the teenage you wouldn’t be happy about, change it.

For your information, the woman in the true life story suffered this memory loss for around 8 weeks and her memories of being between 15 and 32 have now returned … but she is no longer a doormat.

To be or not to be Jack Dee

9 08 2011

I’m a funny person. I know this because my friends tell me so and because people I meet when I speak at a variety of events tell me so.

It’s not the “an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a pub and the barman says, Is this a joke?” kind of funny but I do have the knack of seeing the absurd in most situations and coming up with witty one liners.  So when Lynne Parker, founder of Funny Women, suggested that the3rdimagazine should host a comedy challenge in Scotland naturally I was up for it.

The essence of the event is that six businesswomen are trained by Lynne and her team to help them prepare 3 minutes of  stand-up to be performed in front of an audience. I agreed to handle the logistics, specifically recruiting the six businesswomen, and since I wouldn’t ever ask anyone to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself, I agreed to be one of the six.

How hard could it be? It’s just 3 minutes.

My laptop takes longer than 3 minutes to boot up in the morning. And I’m a child of the 70’s and I knew from the public service films of the time that you could unscrew all your doors and make a perfectly serviceable nuclear shelter well within the 4 minute warning you would get of the coming Armageddon, so I figured 3 minutes was about the time it would take to find a screwdriver.

But it is hard. I’m writing this as I sit on the train bound for Edinburgh and part two of the training workshop. Part one was fun and if you get the chance to go to a funny women workshop then grab it. It is much more about presenting yourself with confidence than it is about being rolling in the aisles funny. So even if you don’t fancy yourself as the next Jo Brand you’ll get loads out of it.

I’m writing this blog partly as a record of the day but mainly as a work avoidance tactic as I’m writing this rather than writing my stand up script.

Writing a 3 minute script – or “set” as we in the business call it – is hard. Much harder than I thought it would be. Try it. Thing of something that you feel strongly about and try to write a 3 minute presentation. Now make it interesting. Now make it larger than life. Now make it funny. Now say it out load. I guarantee that even if you thought it was funny in the first place then it will lose its appeal after 50 repetitions. I don’t know how the professionals do it. They tell the same jokes every night of a tour and still laugh at themselves. I’ve seen Eddie Izzard do his routine live in Glasgow, seen the video of him recorded in London where he does the same routine and heard him on the radio performing the same routine in some city in the north-east of England. And each time he laughed at the punchline.

I suppose Jack Dee is the exception. Maybe I could be Jack Dee. Maybe I will be Jack Dee.

You’ll just have to come along on Thursday to find out for yourself. In the meantime, since I’m already at Edinburgh Park, I’d better get back to my homework


The evening will help raise funds to help trafficked women in India. HIV/AIDS is growing across India and in the state of Karnataka in South India and in particular among ‘Devadasi’. They are young girls from poor Dalit families who are ‘dedicated’ to the goddess Yellamma and then used in the practice of socially and religiously sanctioned prostitution.

We would like to help make a difference in a small way by raising funds towards helping the Good Shepherd Healthcare team to establish a mobile health unit that will go out into the villages around the Yellamma temple and can offer good medical care and nutrition to those who are often too unwell to travel for help.

Hosting the show will be Scottish actress, comedienne, playwright, journalist and author Janey Godley!


Karen Birch is Managing Director at the3rdimagazine

“I’ve made presentations in front of hundreds of people at venues as diverse as The House of Lords and The Glasgow Concert Hall but the idea of stand up comedy takes me completely out of my comfort zone. But if I am to challenge other businesswomen to perform on the 11th August I have to be prepared to do so myself!”

Ruth Walker is Managing Director at Turquise Insight,

a consultancy specialising in helping organisations and individuals achieve successful progress and change through strategy development and mentoring. Ruth has a particular interest in the charity sector and in mentoring and coaching younger leaders. Ruth has been leading the project to raise awareness of, and much needed funds for, Good Shepherd Healthcare.

Jackie Cameron owns Cameron Consulting.

After a long career as a tax consultant Jackie wanted to “work with other people to make a difference” – which is still her mission. Jackie has coached clients from all types of organisations including business owners, directors, educational leaders, new managers and recent graduates.

Michelle Rodger is a former national newspaper journalist, a business founder and communications consultant.

Michelle is a keen supporter of young entrepreneurship initiatives across Scotland and writes a weekly column for Scotland on Sunday, focusing on the challenges and rewards of being an entrepreneur and issues affecting SMEs.

Pam Lyall is Director of Mediation Services at Core Solutions.

Core is Scotland’s leading provider of high quality independent mediation and facilitation services in the private and public sectors. They work throughout the UK and beyond, helping businesses, organisations and individuals find prompt, constructive and creative solutions to difficult problems or disputes.

Pat Elliott is an inspirational speaker.

Pam is also creator, designer and developer of web-enabled bio-medical software for stress compliance in organisations and stress management and prevention for individuals. Pat is also an author of many articles and books.

You can get involved and support our debut stand ups and help us to raise money for this great charity by coming along on the night.

Ticket price is just £20, which includes fun, a pizza and glass of wine!

In order to keep admin costs to an absolute minimum we wish to avoid the costs involved when booking on-line so we are asking that guests pay at the door on the night. We do, however, need to order enough pizzas :0) so please e-mail karen@the3rdi.co.uk to book your place.