Death was everywhere for the Victorians, but it was never commonplace

Death’s great paradox is its inconstant constancy. Its forms and rituals change from generation to generation. In our own era, antibiotics have reduced the chance of a fatal infection, and average life expectancy has risen to our eighties. Direct cremation means we can even ship Auntie Maudie, when her time comes, to the crematorium sight unseen and have her ashes returned via DHL. Our existential encounter with death in society is muted to a murmur. Unlike the Irish and their open-coffin wakes, the English almost never now see a corpse. So it is hard to imagine how our great-great-grandparents lived in a world where fatal fevers struck at random and

The problem with cringe-making funerals

21 min listen

When did supposedly religious funerals turn into ‘celebrations of life’ that are more about entertaining the congregation than mourning the dead person – who, these days, hasn’t died but ‘passed’?  In this episode of Holy Smoke I’m joined by one of my favourite American priests, Fr Joe Krupp, a self-described ‘redneck’ from Michigan who reaches millions with his powerful ministry and wisecracking podcasts. He puts his finger on what’s gone wrong. Wait for the horror story at the end. He had me laughing so much that I could hardly get my questions out. Don’t miss this one! 

Everyday life in the Eternal City: Roman Stories, by Jhumpa Lahiri, reviewed

The middle story in this compassionate collection follows disparate folk loosely linked by a set of steps. Among them, there’s the mother who climbs them first thing in the morning, the girl who descends them at two in the afternoon and the screenwriter who lives at the foot of them, and who stays home nearly all day. Together, these men, women and children represent a cross section of society. One comes from ‘a faraway tropical city’; another compares the grubby sight of graffiti to hearing ‘foreigners talking on the street’. Yet, here they are, existing side by side in a Roman neighbourhood, going about their ordinary daily routines. Which is

Funeral gatecrasher: The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach, reviewed

Here is a rare dud from the usually reliable Deborah Moggach. Her protagonist, Pru, finds herself alone at 69 after Greg, her husband of decades, leaves her out of the blue. There is a further loss to come for Pru, and Moggach is good on her ‘howling loneliness’; but what she decides to do about it doesn’t quite ring true. Urged on by her sexy, bolshy friend Azra (who was Linda from Sunderland before a sudden reinvention) to meet someone new, Pru begins searching out the funeral notices of strangers, so that she can gatecrash the ceremonies and hit on the widowed husbands. Azra has told her that widowers are

The importance of a good funeral

In ITV’s otherwise terrible drama Finding Alice, one line struck me with particular force. A funeral director is addressing our heroine, who finds herself unexpectedly having to organise last rites for her partner. Wicker coffins are particularly popular now with relatives, says the undertaker, and I found myself nodding in strong agreement. A light woven coffin, made of pleasingly biodegradable material and topped with a simple but stylish cross of early spring flowers, was exactly what we selected for my father, to be buried in one of the last remaining — and therefore highly sought-after — spots in the churchyard. ‘This might sound a very odd thing to say,’ said

Spare a thought for undertakers during this pandemic

Our neighbour, the much-respected local undertaker, conducted twice as many funerals in April as in the same month last year. One might be tempted to say ‘It’s an ill wind…’, but in fact it has been grim, both from a professional and a human point of view. ‘We have had,’ he says — with a double meaning he notices only after he has said it — ‘to think outside the box.’ Coffins are in short supply, ‘unless people want the willow or bamboo’. With no new traditional wooden ones available until early June, he has had to get in cardboard versions as a back-up. The firm is not allowed to