The rise of alternative funerals

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 07.56.00 In 2012 my mother died. She wasn’t religious and a vicar didn’t seem appropriate. I asked the funeral director what our options were. A celebrant was suggested. I had never heard of a celebrant led funeral service before but became intrigued and several months later I trained with the Fellowship of Professional Celebrants to become one. If you are reading this blog, by the way because you are interested in becoming a funeral celebrant a word of warning. There are now far too many of us and the competition is extremely tough. Each funeral director, I am told has around 20 celebrants on their books and they tend to stick with the tried and tested! In other words their favourites! All of the training colleges keep churning out more and more new celebrants but there simply isn’t the work for everybody who goes through the training, despite the rise in celebrant led services in recent years.But let’s not get into the politics of it all here! For more information on celebrancy please see my other website

In 2012 I knew very little about funerals and back then had no idea that I would be conducting funerals in peoples’ homes, village halls, hotels and the most glamorous of all – a marquee overlooking a lake with a small bridge adorned with floral tributes and canapés and champagne to follow. I had imagined that I would only conduct funeral services at the crematorium. (90% of my services however are conducted at the crematorium.)

There has been a big rise in this type of alternative funeral. These are funerals not held in a crematorium chapel. There are woodland burials for example, (*see note below) burials in peoples’ homes (see note below *) services held at sea and I have conducted several funerals where families organise everything themselves: from building the coffin, preparing their loved one through to arranging a limousine to the venue. I have also conducted mixed faith services.

When I conduct alternative funerals my role is wider than just a celebrant. I see myself more as a meeting facilitator, a coordinator, a toastmaster or a professional public speaker. (Which I am by the way. I belong to the Toastmasters’ International. (A non profit organization training members in public speaking and leadership skills.)

In West Sussex where I live some of the demand for alternative funerals comes from a sleepy village called Forest Row. Nestled in the Ashdown Forest on the road to London Forest Row has always attracted alternative groups of people because it’s on the Greenwich meridian line: from Green warriors to veggies, tree worshippers to hippies and there are several alternative religions based close by. It’s an interesting place and its people are vibrant and in touch with what is going on in the world, from environmental issues to concerns about big business and big government. I like going to a cafe called Seasons on a Sunday afternoon after a walk in the Ashdown Forest. Forest Row has a certain charm to it. There’s an air of wealth but also a feeling that it’s cut off, neglected and in need of bringing back into the folds of the wider society. Forest Row has a curiously Wild West feel to it. It reminds me of West Yellowstone, where I holidayed a couple of years back. (And incidentally the setting for my next novel, due out next year.)

If you are a celebrant or a humanist reading this and have been asked to conduct an alternative funeral in a venue other than a crematorium there are certain things you need to consider. When you meet with the family find out who is responsible for playing the music. Will there be a PA system? Make sure it has been tested. Or will somebody play the music through an ipod or other device and who will press the buttons during the service? Make sure the family don’t think you will do this as well as speak because you will find this very difficult to do two roles and it could add to the stress. Sometimes families will think you can do both. Who will guide the mourners to their chairs? Will you announce the start or a family member? Will you be required to be at the venue earlier to help set out the chairs. Will there be a lectern or music stand to rest your script on? Or can you manage without? Where will you stand? Will you walk up and down, move around more as if you are performing on stage? How long will the service be? Do you need to charge more? Bear in mind the funeral director may not be present. (Sometimes these services are held after the cremation, even a week later). Who will get a glass of water for someone who coughs persistently? Will somebody be on the door to welcome and seat latecomers? Check that everybody knows what their role is.

Next comes the fun part. Yes there is fun in the word funeral. Alternative funerals offer so much more scope for a celebration of the person’s life. It’s vital to stick to timing at the crematorium and in our part of the country services are only 30 minutes. In a village hall you could have an hour long service and be flexible. Be careful though. If the deceased is taken from the venue to the crematorium for the committal and cremation make sure the timings work out. How will you close the service to allow the family to make a quick exit to go on to the crematorium? You could ask them to remain seated while the family leave and then invite them all to stay for drinks and the family will join them later.

Alternative funerals allow scope for several speeches and even some improvisation/drama. During one service a family member handed round articles of clothing for the mourners to touch and smell, their favourite flower and favourite book as well and even a plate of their favourite food! These props helped to tell the story of the person’s life.

You could suggest a dove release afterwards or encourage mourners to share their memories in a book or bring a photo to put on a pin board or add to an album. You could suggest a singer. Your role is to help the family make the most of their special day but putting forward interesting suggestions. Your role is also to ensure the occasion runs smoothly – as well as writing the funeral service!

Alternative funerals are a great personal way of sending a loved one on their next journey!

Foot notes:

* Regarding home burials. As long as certain guidelines are followed to avoid potential public health risks, there is no law against being buried in your own garden, or on private land. After all wealthy families with large estates have for centuries, built a mausoleum or burial chambers and vaults on their land, for the burial of a family member.

* Green burial (also known as a Natural or Woodland Burial) is all about keeping things as simple and natural as possible – returning to nature in a way that will not harm the environment, but will actually preserve the landscape and enhance opportunities for wildlife – it’s about leaving the world a better place, and is increasingly becoming the environmentally friendly choice.

Asperger’s Men and relationships

Unknown-1I’ve often wondered whether, in a different life I’d be happier gay. Men and women, by their very natures are so different and these differences can lead to so much conflict and misunderstanding. It’s so hard to understand how a man’s brain is wired at the best of times but if they have an extreme male brain – the condition known as Aspergers it’s doubly hard.

Aspergers is a mild autistic spectrum disorder, where those afflicted can lead ‘normal’ lives, but behave in a way that is rigid and lacking in sensitivity. It is an incurable developmental disability in which one’s ability to communicate and relate to the outside world is impaired, meaning empathy (the drive to identify with others’ emotions), socialising and picking up on cues, such as subtlety or irony, are virtually impossible. The term Asperger’s was coined some 60 years ago, derived from the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger, who believed that mildly autistic people could lead normal lives, especially if given the proper encouragement.

90% of people with Aspergers are male. I’m 51 and when I was at school we had never heard of the condition. There are lots of men walking around today who are unaware they have it. They have never been diagnosed. Most usually these men are found in high office and in well paid jobs because they are extremely intelligent.

I have always been attracted to very intelligent men. The downside though is that they might also have Aspergers. I reckon at least three men that I have dated and lived with have the condition and it is extremely hard to be in a relationship with such men. Their company needs to be balanced with lots of female company to make up for all their shortfalls.

There is a lot of discussion on the internet about how to see the positives in your Asperger’s man and how to have a fulfilling relationship with him. For me it’s easier to bow out of the relationship because it’s simply too hard. Such men are emotionally detached. They are great when they’re talking in detail about their interests and subjects they know something about which don’t involve anything on a personal level. If you’ve just had a job interview, have a friend who is ill in hospital, a nightmare boss they won’t ask you about it or help you resolve any problems. They show zero empathy and they don’t notice if you’ve had a drastic haircut or you’re wearing a new dress. In fact they never compliment you on anything from a well done, to a you look lovely. Asperger’s men can’t show empathy or understanding. They can’t engage in your life. They are on the sidelines living in their bubble and the only way it will work is for you to accept their rigid ways and enter their world. You have to be a saint and give up who you are and not to rely on them for emotional support but to look to your female friends for this instead.

Because Asperger’s men can’t relate to you and can’t handle emotions and feelings they will either get aggressive or they will cry when all you want is to talk through how you feel and for them to share how they feel but you will never know how they feel, not on a personal level. They will tell you what they think of Brexit or the migrant crisis but they won’t tell you how they feel about their father’s death or comment on your life losses. It can be like talking to a brick wall. They will listen to you but they won’t respond. It’s like living in an empty relationship.

In bed they might be passionate and see sex as a fantastic work out or they might be clumsy and not know how to develop the right techniques. But the one thing they won’t do is look into your eyes, stroke your face, engage emotionally or whisper beautiful things to you afterwards.

Maybe this is just my experience of Asperger’s men. I suspect they all have different social and personal issues going on that make having a relationship, on an intimate level, with a woman very hard indeed. And so, in conclusion I don’t have any answers, except to say good luck!

My books both contain characters with Aspergers, based on my own experiences. Here’s a link:

Erectile dysfunction and link to pornography

All Things D - Part 1 - 'The Catholic Woman's Dying Wish' Book coverErectile Dysfunction and pornography. It’s the Summer holidays. What is your teenage boy up to? Hopefully he’s got a summer job but it’s unlikely you can entice him to come away with you on a family holiday. They get to a certain age and just want to be left at home alone. The chances are he’s doing what he usually does – he’s alone in his bedroom, watching films on his computer, playing games on his computer or chatting to friends on his computer. Teenage boys still hang out with friends but they no longer climb trees, mess about on bikes, or hunt for bird eggs like they used to or do other active pursuits. Their lives are fairly inactive and their bodies are lacking in vitamin D due to the lack of sunlight they’re exposed to.

Teen boys rarely let you in their bedroom. If you try and enter their room even just to remove all the dirty cups and plates you get the door slammed in your face. You can bet your bottom dollar, with easy access to the internet they are checking out porn on their computers. If you think your teen boy is an angel and would never look at it, well think again. Extreme content can be found free of charge in little more than a few clicks. Many parents don’t have parental locks because it slows up computers and they don’t know how to fit them.

When boys reach puberty it’s only natural that they will masturbate and physically they do need to. But there are concerns that watching too much porn is causing damage to men’s health. Top psychosexual therapist, Angela Gregory, says the trend of older men being diagnosed with the condition has changed and more and more men in their late teens or early 20s are suffering from erectile dysfunction.

My first book ‘The D Word’ (see link below) was about a man in his early fifties who suffered from erectile dysfunction due to cardio vascular issues as well as diabetes. Historically men that were referred to Angela Gregory’s clinic with problems with erectile dysfunction were older men whose issues were related to diabetes, MS, cardio vascular disease. ‘The D Word’ reflected these issues.

My second book ‘The Catholic Woman’s Dying Wish’ (see link below) was about a man in his fifties who also suffered from erectile dysfunction due to entirely different issues. He had been abused by a priest when he was a young boy and this had affected his sexual abilities as well as his mental health.

A new trend has come to the attention of today’s therapists because they have have seen a huge surge in the number of porn-addicted millennial men seeking treatment for their penis problems.

Angela Gregory explains: “One of the first assessment questions I’d always ask now is about pornography and masturbatory habit because that can be the cause of their issues about maintaining an erection with a partner.”

“These younger men do not have organic disease, they’ve already been tested by their GP and everything is fine.”
Young men may face performance anxiety after comparing their penises to the gigantic ones of porn stars.

They may also become hooked on extreme porn depicting acts that few women would be willing to endure, leaving them bored by the standard sex on offer with real life partners.

‘The D Word’ was re shaped into ‘The Catholic Woman’s Dying Wish.’ Here is the link: