The article was previously published in the MAPS bulletin on death, dying and psychedelics.
years ago, scarred by early bereavement and the unsatisfying funerals that
followed, I had an epiphany; I would become an undertaker and join the
fledgling alternative green funeral movement. I would help people to avoid
sleepwalking, as I had, through the numbness of fresh grief, create with them
ceremonies that both honoured the person who had died and truly enabled those
who were left to begin the next stage of their lives. The clarity of this
illumination was quite unlike anything I have had before, or since.
is remarkably little legislation in the UK around becoming a funeral director,
largely because you are not legally obliged to engage one. A relative can
collect a body from a hospital and keep them at home, do the paperwork, order a
coffin, hold the service, even bury them in their own back yard if they want
to. To set up as one all you need, as I discovered, was luck, naivete and
you've found what you are meant to be doing things can move fast. I babbled to
everyone I knew, read some books, and arranged to see my first dead body. I put
out a press release, agreed to take a ceremony as well as deal with the
practicalities, and within what seemed like minutes, found myself talking about
love and loss around the bodies of the newly dead to congregations of people. A
friend of mine called Claire became intrigued, joined me, was initiated with
similar emotional immediacy and soon became my wife. A decade later, and our
life is steeped in what Mary Oliver calls "the black river of loss, whose other
side is salvation, whose meaning none of us shall ever know."
doesn't even feel that weird anymore.
call ourselves undertakers rather than funeral directors. There is an implicit
commitment in that word, a sense that this is an experience we will go through
together, that we undertake to see
you through it. Old school funeral
directors direct; they inform you of the rules, the dizzying world of etiquette
that you, stunned by grief, are now subject to. They introduce you to a priest,
murmur approval, show you stationary bordered with lilies and doves, explain
how it's done.
We do it differently.
We employ no bearers, no team of old men
to literally shoulder the burden, so at the very least, between us, we have to
carry and lower the coffin together. We don't divert the eye with expensive
vehicles, or matching livery's or overtly extravagant displays of anything.
It's not about the car, or the orders of service or the flowers. Distractions.
We think that what is said is of more importance. We don't believe in replacing
sorrow with celebration, and we have no template, other than a belief that
secretly, we all long to turn our faces to the truth, that there is a
liberation in its presence which we feel absented from in our increasingly
believe that if possible, seeing the person who has died, naturally and
unembalmed is a crucial step towards acceptance, and makes the difference
between knowing something in your head, and knowing it in your heart. For these
reasons we avoid euphemisms of all kind. More often than not we take the
service ourselves, which more often than not is outdoors, in a circle, around a
grave. We try to raise hope, but temper it with the truth, so we don't airbrush
out all someone's faults, or grossly inflate their virtues either, as if death
somehow makes us better people. We talk about their dying as well as their
living, as it is the last, crucial piece of the puzzle of our lives. We avoid
any strong reference to the afterlife, not from any personal conviction one way
or the other, but because it's so clear that the point is not where they are,
but where they are not. Honesty,
appropriateness and participation is what we are aiming for, and when they come
together, it works.
influences are varied. My wife's tribe is punk, so she brings a healthy
disregard for tradition and authority. I have Quaker leanings, tinged with acid
mysticism. Neither of us are religious in a conventional sense, though we are
open to hope and wonder. Both of us believe strongly in people, and from time
to time we like to dance all night. I like to think these are linked.
always ask us how we cope, how we live our lives surrounded by such
sadness, and in truth we have many
strategies and resources to pull on; good friends, a healthy emotional
relationship, a fairly twisted sense of humour, and a few years of therapy
under our belt, but it's time we also acknowledged our debt to mdma and dance
culture, both in how we free ourselves from the weight of other's pain, and how
we construct and hold our ceremonies.
Raving and mdma have been a part of my
culture since my early twenties, and has formed much of my adult self. It has
marked birthdays, midsummers, midwinters; even our wedding celebrations, and
although as time has passed my enthusiastic consumption has naturally leveled
out, and my idea of a rave reduced to a few friends shuffling and giggling
around a fire, we still reserve it as a spiritually warming treat.
The core experience of mdma — empathy, surges
of happiness, dissolution of fear, and the feeling of re-inhabiting your body — are not what any serious psychonaut would describe as a testing drug ordeal.
Other psychedelics offer much weightier insights into the nature of existence
and non-existence, with less predicability and certainly more challenge, but
almost immediately upon beginning this work we were regularly dealing with
trauma such as suicide, and all the currents and rip-tides of emotional
contagion, despair and fear that swirl around it.
Coping with the family of someone who
has killed themselves, or whose life has ended in an equally intense moment of
peak tragedy is itself a peak experience, and requires awareness and perspective so as not to
succumb to emotional vertigo. Bad
things happen to good people for no reason, and having this reinforced almost
daily is enough to make the most optimistic soul tremble with a sort of morbid
anticipation, but the joyful, uncomplicated exuberance that mdma gave us kept
us sane in the shock of entering this new life, and helped the grief and pain
to run off us like water. It kept reminding me that we were blessed, in our
friendships, our lives, in ourselves.
It allowed us to feel the grief but not become it, and this was a much a better
way of dealing with it than the traditional professional response to repeated
exposure to trauma; numbification through alcohol.
its tendency to almost unconditional positive regard I don't believe that mdma
has given us a false perspective on bereavement, and it hasn't been our only
influence in attempting to reframe the rituals around our dead, but the message
that we have taken from it, the message that lay at the heart of rave
culture — that all we really need and have is each other — has proved a profound
and subversive one to bring to the funeral rite.
religion is wilting fast in this country, but a sense of the numinous still
exists everywhere. The challenge
faced by those willing to step into the shoes of the priest is how to hold onto
these impulses while staying true to the emerging culture. For me, these truths
were revealed again and again in the swirling mass of a rave; that human beings
are fundamentally good, bright beings, that faith and hope and love are not the
preserve of the religious, that they are a part of the human condition, the
best part, and that by daring to remove the traditional ritual props that
surround a funeral and facing the darkness together with nothing but honesty and
intention we reveal this, and edge ever closer to the previously unthinkable — a
religion without god. To get there though, we need to stand together in the
presence of our shared truths, ditch the things we disagree on, namely what
happens after we've died, and see what remains. It's a risk, but we have
nothing to lose and all to gain.
am so grateful for the optimism and hope that mdma has enabled me to feel, for
the part it played in healing my own grief and for the opportunity to take the
best of that experience back into the straight world. All who work with the
dying and the bereaved would benefit from the sheer, death defying physical
pleasure that mdma gives, if only for an hour or two.
As thirty odd years of authoritarian
hostility towards psychedelic culture begins to thaw, maybe they'll get the
Image by James at Uni, courtesy of Creative Commons license.