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View from Vitalia: Of tact, tactlessness and sheer stupidity

Some British companies tend to regard burials as little more than ‘technologies’ in the highly competitive industry of death and dying.

“Hey, Google, what’s the news?” I asked habitually first thing on Easter Sunday morning. 

My faithful virtual assistant, dormant in the lounge, came to life and started playing the latest bulletins from UK’s leading  news providers: BBC , Sky etc. - in which I was trying to pinpoint  regulation April Fool hoaxes  (as  you may remember, Easter fell on the 1st of April this year). And that was what I initially took the following piece of news for: “Fees for burying or cremating a child have been scrapped in England and Wales by  a government decision,” a presenter read in a non-committal  voice.

That certainly could not be serious, I was musing, for who would want to hear that kind of ‘news’ first thing on Easter Sunday, when the thoughts of so many are focused on birth and resurrection rather than death, particularly that of a child. On the other hand, to come up with such a moribund and black April Fool joke – as opposed to the  usual ‘record spaghetti crops’ and the new breed of butterflies of the Union Jack colour – was sick and not at all funny.

Hearing that piece of ‘news’ ruined my mood for the whole day. Up to now, I cannot say with certainty whether it was real or fake but that really doesn’t matter, because whatever it was it was grossly inappropriate and TACTLESS. Particularly, at Easter...

And that’s what I want to talk about in my today’s blog – tact, or rather lack of it.

I am not a hypocrite and am very much aware that we are all going to die one day. But I also believe that one of the most amazing human qualities is that we do not keep thinking and getting depressed about death all the time. Einstein was right when he said that the ability to forget is perhaps the best quality of a human mind. In this connection, I often recall an Air Mauritius advertising poster I once spotted on the way to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport: “Fly Straight to Heaven!” it said.

Well, most people would probably have nothing against ending up in heaven (if it exists, of course), but not necessarily in the middle of their long-haul flight and within the next several hours. To use another vivid metaphor, which is also the title of Richard Holloway’s recent book about death and dying ‘Waiting for the Last Bus’, we are all standing inside the bus shelter knowing for sure that the proverbial ‘last bus’ is going to pull over and pick us up sooner or later. But we probably wouldn’t want that very ‘bus’ to chase us noisily along the streets. In plain words, while being aware of our mortality, we do not need to be reminded of it too frequently. And that is exactly what we are having to face every day in the form of  the near-ubiquitous and extremely conspicuous undertakers’ offices (there are three in just one little street in the town where I live, with the poshest and largest right next to a much smaller and less eye-catching health food shop), numerous mail offers of discounted funerals and life insurance deals “to help your loved ones after you go” that start arriving in your post box regularly the moment you turn 50, as well the over-flamboyant TV, radio and newspaper ads from the companies that seem to regard funerals as a commodity and death as a kind of ‘technology’, of which the above-mentioned aggressive ‘last bus’ would be a good metaphorical example.

“A direct cremation. Lose the mourners (sic – VV), the fuss and 60 per cent of the cost. Choose our pre-paid cremation plan from just £1,595.”

When I first saw this rather bombastic ad in a national newspaper last month, my first question was who exactly was it targeting? Definitely not the ‘mourners’ whom it suggested to ‘lose’... Who then? Two lines in small print underneath the main ad made it all crystal clear: “Imagine a family-friendly farewell in your favourite place, at the weekend and in your own unique style (??-VV). Discover how we make it possible.”

The ad was obviously aimed not at the mourners or the relatives but at the object of cremation himself (or herself)! The most puzzling bit then was the way one could discover how the company in question “makes it possible”. By being cremated of course, how else? If so, what kind of posthumous ‘discovery’ was the ad talking about, unless of course the cremation company had strong beliefs in the afterlife?

So intrigued I was by the ad that I went straight to the company’s website – and didn’t regret it. The home page contained a photo of blissful-looking elderly lady reclining in bed, with a smartphone in her hand and with headphones on,  listening to and, possibly also watching, the recording... of what? Of her own cremation??

Above the blissful photo was a link to ‘Reviews’(!), with the word “Excellent” above it and five stars underneath. Another case of afterlife communication?

The reviews were all commending the “great service” and promising to “recommend” the company to their relatives and friends (not sure about you, but I wouldn’t be too happy to receive such recommendation).

The website also carried a kind of  ‘menu’, with a price-list of the services on offer, including “a solid pine eco-coffin” (“you don’t need an expensive coffin: we’ve carefully chosen a low-cost solid wood eco coffin,” explains the website’s ‘How it works’ section) and a welcome(!) document pack containing, among other things, “a letter thanking you for choosing our pre-paid cremation plan”, “a Plan Certificate with your unique plan number” and a My Funeral Wishes card to keep in your purse or wallet so everyone knows who to call when the time comes”. Imagine getting a welcome pack like that in your mail, particularly on your birthday...

Now, let me pause here and ask myself: maybe there’s nothing wrong with trying to organise someone’s demise as if it were a small office outing, or a training course? Maybe it is OK to be upbeat and somewhat flippant about it all? Surely, all the jolly methods and procedures described above are preferable to the drab, formalistic  and horribly insensitive, yet pretty hush-hush, burials and cremations in the USSR, with its chronic shortages of everything, including coffins (plastic, not ‘eco’),  where I myself once saw the following sign on some rusty crematorium gates:
“DUE TO LACK OF CASKETS ASHES WILL BE DELIVERED IN POLYTHENE BAGS”

It was actually the ashes of a dear friend that we had come to collect.

Or another real-life (sorry for the pun) 1980s sign in the mortuary of Moscow’s First City Hospital:
“CORPSES ARE AVAILABLE ONLY ON RECEPT OF DEATH CERTIFICATE AND PASSPORT BEARING RESIDENCE PERMIT”

So upset and angry I was by the soulless and drab Soviet funeral procedures that I wrote a feature about it all for a leading pro-perestroika magazine Ogonyok. Titled ‘Ashes in Polythene’, the feature (also published in the English translation by Heinemann in “The Best of Ogonyok” collection in 1990) had the following ending (with a bit of extra pathos, characteristic of glasnost and perestroika journalism): “Down with the insult of polythene for ashes! Away with idiotic signs: the dead do not require residence permits! Conceal crematorium chimneys from sight! Let us behave like human beings… Are we alive, or are we all already dead?”

 After the article had gone to press, the editors of Ogonyok received the price list (similar to the one quoted above), prominently displayed at a 1989 Moscow crematorium. One item in it curiously echoed the piece of news I heard in England on Easter Day 2018: “...Cremation of children: one body – 0.67 kopecks”. Only that last one was definitely not a joke.

What can I say? Manifestations of banality may differ from country to country and from system to system. Yet tactlessness and stupidity are similar everywhere. In this respect, my 30-year-old Soviet cry in the wilderness still sounds relevant in Britain: “Down with insults and bare commercialism! Away with flippant and crude signs, price-lists and cremation ‘welcome packs’! Hide crematorium chimneys, funeral parlours and undertakers’ offices in side lanes, away from high streets! We are aware of our mortality and do not need constant reminders... Let us behave like human beings! Are we still alive or already dead, after all?”

I wish I could finish on this exalted Soviet-journalism-like note – but I can’t. The other day, I received in the post yet another plea to “leave a cash sum to help your loved ones”, as if someone there could not wait to bury (or cremate) me. The pack invited me to take up a life insurance policy and tried to make me cough up with the help of the following printed gimmick – naff and not too literate: “I’ll never forget Dad’s silly sense of humour” (says who? VV). Being a parent doesn’t stop when your life does... You are forever a parent. Read more about Life Insurance”.

The packet – like all the countless previous ones – went straight to the bin of course. But another – from a different company – had already fallen through the door. Death is a highly competitive industry these days.

...On the way to the train station of a morning, I often stop for a  cuppa at one of the several coffee shops in the High Street of our small Hertfordshire town. From there, I have a great view of a plush funeral parlour, with an opulent flower-decorated coffin in the window – a good place to ponder life’s impermanence and get depressed.

 There’s nowhere one can hide from funeral parlours in our town: they confront you everywhere, making you sometimes feel guilty for being still alive. The sight of them never fails to remind me of the opening sentence of my favourite novel of all time – ‘The Twelve Chairs’ by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. It’s one of the best opening sentences in the history of the world literature, or so I think:
“There were so many hairdressing establishments and funeral homes in the regional centre of N. that the inhabitants seemed to be born entirely in order to have a shave, get their hair cut, freshen their heads with toilet water and then die.”

Incidentally, one of the funeral parlours in the fictitious regional centre was called ‘Do-Us-the-Honour’ Funeral Home.

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