By Vexen Crabtree 2014
Those wishing for a non-religious funeral ceremony should contact the National Secular Society, 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R 4RL. Tel: 020 7404 3126.
Human and animal instincts towards death and dead bodies evolved so that species would avoid dangerous sources of disease, which dead bodies certainly are. As decomposing bodies also represent a pollution risk for drinking water, more advanced land-based species' instincts are often to find a secluded spot where both socialisation and drinking are unknown. In social species such as ours, this had led to specific religious prohibitions, social taboos and social customs all to do with sanctifying burial grounds.
Also human instinct and the human want for remembrance, as a result of our powers of abstract thinking, compel us to provide ways for the dead to be acknowledged and for now-defunct emotional ties to be addressed. A memorial service or funeral of some kind is often valued for those who the deceased leave behind. Prof. Zwi Werblowsky, a sociologist of religion, said "I think I can venture to locate the beginning of religion: it begins wherever human beings do more to a corpse than is strictly necessary for its disposal"1. This phenomenon is seemingly timeless. We have buried our dead at least since the Paleolithic era, and later early modern humans buried people alongside flowers, tools and other artefacts, making ritual and symbolism a feature of death2. In Egypt "by 3500 BCE architectural models were buried with the dead to provide solace in the afterlife. During late predynastic times (the Gerzean or Naqada II period, c. 3400 BCE) large, elaborately decorated and furnished tombs were built to house decease people of status"3. Some kind of final closure on someone's life is something we yearn for. It is not just a Human instinct; animals such as Elephants exhibit behaviours towards death that seem ritualistic, and according to the paleontologists Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin in "Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human", the Neanderthals (who became extinct 32 000 years ago) "occasionally buried their dead with a degree of ritual that we recognise as Human"4. Bodies were buried alongside tools and in symbolic bodily positions5. The funeral ritual instinct can take many forms and is not synonymous with a typical Western funeral.
Over a hundred years ago the psychologist William James taught that normal Human beings hide death away. Later David Clark in "The Sociology of Death" (1993) devotes a chapter to the way that we in the West, have secluded all things bloody from common sight. We clinicalize death, so that only trained professionals have anything to do with the practical side of blood, slaughter, bodies, funerals and burials6,7. This denial of reality extends far and wide amongst the masses. Dead bodies do not litter the floor of battlefields in films and in computer games corpses fade away majestically and discretely. We are so far removed from the natural cycle of life that some parents even worry about how to explain to their children about where beefburgers and sausages come from. Even one's own future death hardly features in public angst, except where the subconscious, desperate, finds expression in dreams.
“We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.”
People who deal with death, including the likes of soldiers, mortuary workers and Funeral Directors staff, must outgrow the attitude towards death where the topic is steeped in permanent seriousness. One religion that centers itself on the concept of the universal victory of death over all life is the Church of Satan. Its founder and proponent Anton LaVey writes that those who work close to death frequently often develop a profound and sanity-saving sense of humour about this dark topic. He notes that "a larger than average number of humorously-inclined professionals" can be found attending to the business of death8. When it comes to discussing the threat of death and the reality of mortality, the apparently rapid-as-a-flash wit of soldiers can seem callous and inappropriate to outsiders. In reality, their approach is life-preserving. Don't let the threat of death diminish our lives while we are still alive! Embrace death! Make fun of death by enjoying life - this is perhaps the only mastery we can ever have over death.
“Sogyal Rimpoche, a Tibetan Lama who has written on the subject of death and dying, examines the issue thus: 'At the moment of death our life becomes clear. Death is our greatest teacher. But, unfortunately, people in the West think of death only when they are dying. This is a little bit late'.”
Whether by burial or cremation, bodies must be disposed of properly as a great many infectious diseases are sourced from careless practices. For this reason, it is illegal to leave them alone. It is also illegal to dispose of a body for the purposes of preventing an inquest10. Although some find it taboo to ponder the issues and most people's decisions come down to cultural beliefs and instinct11, the disposal of dead bodies is a sober and necessarily practical affair where the realities of biological decay and disease must take precedence over Human superstitions, fanciful ideas and magical thinking. Many social animals have instinctual modes of behaviour associated with corpses, mostly geared around avoidance. Us humans share some of those instincts, but our ability to intellectualize sometimes misdirects our actions and leads us down unsuitable paths. This text implores people to be rational and thoughtful with dead bodies.
Because we must emphasize the practical necessities of the proper disposal of bodies does not mean that we can neglect the emotional side. One feature of modern crematoria that combine these is the Garden of Remembrance.
“The gardens of remembrance consist of areas set aside for the disposal of cremated remains. [...] In the majority of cases the cremation ashes are strewn or buried in the gardens of remembrance. [...] It must be borne in mind that when ashes are strewn in other places, e.g. graves, churchyards etc, prior permission must be sought and any local rules or regulations obeyed. You do not have to have the ashes disposed of and, if desired, you may keep them personally.
Usually the only permanent form of memorial available is an entry in the Book of Remembrance. This book is usually displayed in a special Memorial Chapel and each day the entries for that day are on display so that a person is remembered on the anniversary of their death. Some crematoria allow wall plaques or plaques on kerbstones etc, but these are usually for a limited period and require to be renewed periodically by further payments. At some crematoria it is also possible to dedicate a rose bush or other garden item with a small plaque, but this again is for a limited period with the option of renewal on further payment.”
Cremation Society (2006)12
The daily page, that lists those who were cremated on that day on previous years, strikes a romantic chord with me, and I think it is a wonderful way to ensure that the dead have potential to be remembered, especially by the relatives of those who died on the same day.
Burying the dead, in strong wooden coffins, is often the conservative method of choice. But Europe's cemeteries are filling up. Many formal burial grounds in England are simply full. An article in The Economist in 2006 reported that England has acute problems with space to bury the dead13. Many burial grounds elsewhere rotate slots, smashing the bottom of old coffins and putting new ones on top - known throughout Europe as "lift and deepen", a practice that has been practised for 200 years in some countries, but not at all in the USA11 and is officially banned in most of the UK at the moment: In practice, it still happens14 because it is practically necessary. It was legalized in London in 2007 for graves older than 75 years old: An east London cemetery relocates bodies into communal graves at a rate of about 10 per week, as there is simply no space for new graves. In some European countries burial plots are guaranteed for as little as 20 years11. As the world's population continues to increase and space for roads, houses, recreation and infrastructure becomes increasingly valuable, these problems are only set to get worse.
“Avalon [a large cemetery in South Africa] is almost full despite three extensions that took it to 360 hectares, and so are many other cemeteries, including 27 out of the 35 in Johannesburg. In cities including Durban and Cape Town authorities are advocating secondary burials, where the deceased are laid to rest above another family member, or even reduction burials, involving the disinterment of remains after no fewer than 30 years and reburial in a smaller casket to create space. So far this has not proved popular. [...]
Yet only 8% of South Africans opt for cremation, compared with a third in America, half in China, three-quarters in Britain and 95% in Japan. To many South Africans, cremation is taboo, not least because of ancestor-worship and a propensity to commune with the dead.”
Such overcrowding is only the beginning; the world population has doubled since 1970 and the massive rate of increase is not yet slowing. See: "The Overpopulation of the Earth and the Demographics Crises: The Impact on Pensions and Immigration" by Vexen Crabtree (2013).
|England Cremation Rates (%)|
|Source:||Grace Davie 1997||Cremation Society|
Because burial grounds are filling up and methods of conserving space are already showing signs of strain, some have pressed for even more bodies to be cremated. There are lots of reasons to prefer cremation to ground burial. "Cremation is recognised by Public Health Authorities as the most hygienic method of disposal of the dead"12 and is less than half as expensive as ground burial. Ashes, in Urns, are safe from vandalism and can be kept wherever the bereaved wish, even in the home, reducing the size of cemeteries and graveyards, both of which need maintaining and sometimes even, guarding.
However, it is not the ultimate solution. In some overcrowded countries such as Japan it is already the most popular choice: in the UK, three-quarters of people that die are cremated11. Without banning ground burial completely, this figure cannot rise much higher. Cremation can help slow the usage of space but is unlikely to completely solve that problem, and, causes problems of its own.
Cremating a body at 800°C requires 35 cubic metres of natural gas and releases 400kg of carbon dioxide. Other poisons are emitted too; "British crematoria produce 1.34 tonnes of mercury emissions a year, accounting for almost 16 per cent of the nation's total"11. 15 European countries have committed to an agreement to reduce this to zero by 2020, which requires cooling the chamber back down to extract the mercury.
Cremation was long heralded to be the answer to the space shortage for traditional burial in the ground. Now, because of the problems that cremation itself has, people have been searching for all kinds of alternative methods of disposing of bodies.
A Natural Burial Site (back to basics!): A simple cardboard or thin wooden coffin in a shallow grave ensures the quick decomposing of a corpse. In the UK there are 200 sites like this, and they are also being created in the USA, Canada and Australia11. This creates none of the waste or pollution of other methods, and helps fertilize the environment. Graves are often marked very simply or sometimes only recorded as by location. It is easy to forget to compare other complicated and technological solutions against this back-to-basics approach.
Coral Reef integration: By encasing a body in a memorial concrete ball that is decorated and marked by family and friends and lowering it into a coral reef, the reef is extended and supported, providing additional habitat for additional organisms and can be used to divert human attention away from the real reefs. Currently offered by USA company Eternal Reefs, in Decatur, Georgia.11
The following methods seem less efficient as they rely upon resources that are energy-intensive to prepare, such as liquid nitrogen, or which burn and produce pollution, such as cremation.
Liquefaction: "The body is placed in a pressurised chamber, which is then filled with water and potassium hydroxide. After heating at 180°C for about 3 hours, all that remains is softened bones ready to be crushed up, and a sterile, light brown soup of amino acids and peptides [which] can be safely disposed of down the drain, or used as a fertiliser. The developer of the system, Resomation, based in Glasgow, UK, has already installed one "Resomator" at the Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St Petersburg, Florida. It should be up and running by September . Another unit awaits installation at a funeral home in Canada and the company has further orders in the pipeline, according to managing director Sandy Sullivan. [...] Overall carbon footprint of alkaline hydrolysis is 34 per cent lower than that of cremation, according to carbon-accounting firm Sustain, based in Bristol, UK"11. The company Aquamation Industries in Australia in Australia, and for a while a machine in Ohio, have also used alkaline hydrolysis16.
Freeze-drying: "Swedish company Promessa Organic, led by Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, has developed a process in which the corpse is first frozen in liquid nitrogen and then vibrated to break it down into a powder". Magnetic fields are used to extract metals and mercury from bodies. The result turns to compost within a year if buried. The company wants to start first facility by end of 2012.
Another company in Woodbridge, UK, Cryomation, has a prototype device and plans to freeze corpses in liquid nitrogen at -196°C, before drying them in a vacuum. Testing is planned for late 2011. "A recent study for the UK's Carbon Trust that took into account the energy used in producing the liquid nitrogen found that the process's carbon footprint is just one-third of that generated by a cremation".11
Some of these methods, including cremation, result in sterile remains being produced. Increasingly the bereaved chose to walk away from the crematorium with the ashes. In the 1970s about 12% did so, but in 2005 that value was nearly 60%. "Often present in the minds of the bereaved can be a complex metaphysical connection - one that leaves a more desirable image than the memory of burial," says Prof. L. Kellaher of Sheffield University. People scatter ashes around places of beauty, or places of special association with the departed. This is ultimately romantic, sentimental and peacefully un-morbid, completely unlike the structured rituals of traditional funerals. Dr Tony Walter from the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath says that there is a trend towards "personalisation" of funeral rites, and "an almost over-the-top sensibility about human remains. [...] It's a fascinating shift"17.
The shift towards personal disposal of ashes, and the storage of ashes in urns, is a return to an ancient practice. Our ancestors in the UK were immolated and buried in urns, just as the pagan Vikings in Sweden would cremate the dead then bury the remains in a clay pot under a mound18.
At the opposite end of this spectrum come the practical affairs of the crematorium. When chambers are cooled (for example, to collect mercury and metals) quantities of hot water in cooling pipes are produced as a byproduct. Redditch Borough Council in the UK in 2011 plans to use it to heat a nearby swimming pool. "The 280 kilowatt-hours of heat energy [...] will meet nearly half the pool's heating needs, reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 104 tonnes each year, or around 5 per cent of the council's carbon footprint [... and save] £14,500 per year."11This is clearly a sensible option: the energy saved by heating the swimming pool offsets the energy used by the crematorium when burning fuel.
There are two human factors at play here and they needn't conflict. Sometimes pragmatism wins over squeamishness, and a swimming pool gets heated by waste heat from a crematorium. Sometimes sentimentalism wins and people take their loved ones home with them in urns. There is no reason to refuse to walk down either of these streets.
“By the time of the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations cremation had been generally adopted as a method of disposing of the dead. With the advent and spread of Christianity, however, and its concomitant belief in the resurrection of the dead, cremation fell into disfavour and by the fifth century the practice had become almost completely obsolete.”
Cremation Society (2006)19
From 1939 cremation rose rapidly in popularity, overtaking religious coffin funerals as the preferred postmortem arrangement for bodies from the 1960s. England was the first Western country to adopt cremation widely, but the government had to transfer responsibility from a protesting Church to local government20. Previously, Christian religious funerals were all but compulsory, no matter the beliefs of the dead. The Cremation Society, founded and ran from the UK, has been the biggest secular organizer, enacter and proponent of cremation, since the late nineteenth century, a role which often brought it into conflict with established Christianity in the UK. In the end, practical realities convinced the public to abandon religious lines of thought from the 1930s, coinciding with the mass abandonment of religion by the British public in that era.
Superstition has led some religions to ban cremation and argue against it. Before its legalization in 1884 there was a long period were religious clerics succeeded in preventing cremations from going ahead. Thankfully religions that have impractical dogmas telling people how they should behave towards the dead have become obsolete and are largely ignored by many of their own adherents. The Catholic Church banned cremations of Catholics until 1963, and it is still banned by Orthodox Judaism21 and Muslims.
Donor Card schemes work like this: volunteers opt-in to the system, and carry a Donor Card which elects that certain, or all, healthy body parts can be used in transplants shortly after they have died. This saves many lives. But many lives are lost because it requires active volunteering, and unfortunately many people don't know that they have to do the paperwork first23, and others want to help others but haven't bothered with the forms. There is a better system: donation by default or presumed consent, generally called "opt-out" schemes. This is where all organs can be routinely used to save lives, but where one can choose to carry an exemption card, popularly called a "Not a Donor Card". The opt-out system is morally superior and has no shortcomings, and all countries that use opt-in schemes such as the UK should switch to out-out schemes. Opposition has come from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Shinto communities24 who, unfortunately, allow their religious beliefs to blind them to the morality of helping others. But as religion loses its power across much of the world, entire continents such as Europe have been moving towards opt-out schemes, where 24 countries have done so25.
This section is taken from "Enforced Christianity in the Modern British Army: Remembrance Sunday and Church Parades" by Vexen Crabtree (2011).
It is right, healing, educational and value-enforcing to remember those who have died in conflicts. This is done principally on Remembrance Sunday, and typically every single military unit either holds its own or attends a wider garrison event. But across the board, non-Christians have found funerals, memorials and regular church events to be divisive, with an atmosphere that excludes non-Christians and those with no beliefs. A letter of complaint to the National Secular Society newsletter by a senior soldier saw three weeks of letters of distress from those who have also experienced this for themselves26.
Memorial services should remind us of the horrors of the past and therefore hint at the potential horrors of today that soldiers may face in the line of duty. They should also serve as solemn appraisals of the valiance of fallen soldiers and quiet condemnation of the futility of war. It is right that such proceedings are led by a Padre, whose job it is to preside over such events as it is what he is paid for. The Chaplaincy's remit is an "all-faiths" ministry and not intended to be just a Christian outfit
Importantly, memorial events should be inclusive so that all can remember, in peace, those of the past. In the British Army days such as Remembrance Sunday are taken very seriously and it is compulsory to attend. This compulsory nature, and the universalism of tragedy, both imply that the mourning be conducted in a way that does not exclude any particular people.
There is no need to add religious teachings, worship or religion-specific commentary to these days. If, for examples, Hindus in the Army want to hold their own Remembrance Sunday to include their own religious methods of reflection, then they can, but religion-specific preaching should be absent from the compulsory & universal central events.
However, this is not the case. In the British Army memorial events are heavily Christian. The Padre does not lead a universal and inclusive ceremony. He invariably leads a Christian service, with the mentions of fallen comrades taking second-place to the promotion of Christian religion. For example, in the 2005 Remembrance Sunday service in Javelin Barracks, all ten pages of the ceremony timetable include references to God and Jesus. There are far fewer mentions of the victims of war, than there are Christian comments on God and Jesus. This has been the case in all of the (many) services I have attended.
It is not only the quantity of Christian-specific elements in many of these events; it is also the tone which is a problem. The tone implies that only Christians are worthy to be present. In 2005, the Chaplain, Rev. Brian Millson's first three paragraphs all state that proceedings go on 'before God'. "We meet today, to remember before God all who have died" and "We bring before God in penitence the hatreds of our world" are two examples. There is no hint that non-Christians might also want to express penitence for mankind's ills; and for those that aren't religious at all, it's almost stating that they have no right in being there! The service on page 7 even instructs the assembly to pray for those who have no faith in Jesus Christ. How offensive and inappropriate, on a day of mourning, to be shoving religion down people's throats! This is not peculiar, but is a feature of all such parades. Of the many Remembrance Sunday events I report on, all of them have been the same. The references to "praying", to religious beliefs, overwhelm the other emotions of the service. This is wrong. The service should be victim-orientated, not god-orientated, and certainly should not be an opportunity for a Christian to preach hir beliefs to others.
2012 Mar 30: I've expanded this section of this page into a new page of its own. Read the full version here: "Accepting Assisted Suicide: A Focus on UK Law" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)
Assisted dying is a form of palliative care (end of life care) where a doctor gives medication, or withdraws medication, in a way that purposefully brings about the death of a terminally ill patient. Switzerland's Dignitas is one place where people can go to find a final peace, and over 1,000 people have done so there, many from Germany and also some from the UK. By 2000, assisted suicide was also legal in Colombia, Belgium and the Netherlands but is illegal almost everywhere else27. It now legal in Luxembourg and in some states in the USA28. This is generally done by request of the patient, or if comatose, by request of their closest relatives. Assisted suicide is a form of suicide where a doctor first gives the patient the lethal medication for the patient to take themselves or, where the patient needs help in physically committing suicide if they can't do it themselves.
Assisted suicide is illegal in most countries that have laws on suicide. Exceptions, according to circumstances, are in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland, and in the two USA states of Montana, Oregon and Washington29. In the UK suicide was decriminalised in the Suicide Act of 196130. The same law made it illegal to help another person do this legal act, and is punishable by up to 14 years in jail. But this isn't the whole story. Eight hundred Britons have signed up with Dignitas, and one hundred and sixty have voluntarily died there, aided to their end by physicians. In the last 6 years, at least 90 have travelled abroad to get help with committing suicide29. None of the Brits who travelled with them, or the relatives who helped them beforehand, have had a prosecution brought against them. A principal book on UK criminal law states that "if it is determined that the terminally ill person was competent, her local authority had no power to seek to maintain an injunction to restrain her spouse from complying with the wife's wishes to take her to Switzerland" to commit suicide30. This creates, in reality, a conflicting, contradictory and impractical state of law.
Patients should be allowed to die in their home country near friends and family, and not forced to travel abroad to do the same. The state has no right to force people to live in misery if they do not wish to. UK law already permits some forms of assisted suicide. Relatives and loved ones can help others travel abroad in order to end their lives at Dignitas in Switzerland: hundreds of cases are known to prosecutors, and they profess that under normal (moral) cases, no prosecutions will be brought. Living wills made in accordance with the Mental Capacity Act 2005 allow people to state under what criteria they wish to be allowed to die, and in 3% of end-of-life medical settings doctors and relatives make a decision to end life without even having ascertained explicit consent from the patient. In 22% of all deaths in the UK there has been a specific decision to act - or withhold acting - in a manner that causes death. Many patients are permanently sedated until death because their symptoms are severe: this is nothing but slow-acting effective assisted death. All that has clear moral and legal support. Assisted suicide is milder than cases where doctors and relatives choose to end life without explicit consent, and the much higher percent of cases where patients' wishes are respected in a manner than quickens their death. Assisted suicide cases are, and will remain, far fewer than any of these already-accepted methods of chosen death. To argue against assisted suicide is to reject the humanity and morality of these other similar situations.
Current edition: 2014 Feb 09
Last Modified: 2016 Dec 06
Third edition 2011 Oct 04
Second edition 2007
Originally published 2002 Oct 06
Parent page: The Human Truth Foundation
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source..
The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper..
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(2012) "Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline" (2012). Accessed 2017 Mar 08.
Cremation Society of Great Britain
(1995) Buddhism. Paperback book. Part of the TeachYourself Books series.
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(2010) Future Agenda: The World In 2020. Published by Infinite Ideas.
Leakey, Richard & Lewin, Roger
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