Monday, 3 September 2018

Grayson Perry - Rites of Passage

I've long been a fan of Grayson Perry. Not just of his work as a potter which is as subversive as it is beautiful, but also of his clear-eyed attempts to understand and explain the human condition.

He's a gifted communicator, whose easy directness allows him to connect with people from all cultures and walks of life, and in his current series for Channel 4, he travels from the rain-soaked Midlands of England to the rainforests of Sulawesi to investigate the ways in which we mark the big events in our lives. 

“All rituals were invented by somebody,” Perry says. “They didn’t just come out of the ether from God,” and his insight is that while rituals can become empty and meaningless when they lose their connection to the societies they are supposed to serve, they can also evolve.

"Making meaning: that's what we're doing"he says, and in his series, Perry gracefully and movingly offers possible solutions to two realities of 21st century life that no ceremony, religious, civil or humanist currently address: prolonged illness and divorce. Just as Perry transcends easy gender stereotypes, I suspect he'd evade any attempt to categorise his beliefs, but the ceremonies that he helped to create in these programmes struck me as being profoundly humanist in nature. 

As a humanist celebrant, I occasionally have the privilege of meeting people before they die so they can tell me about their life, but it hadn’t occurred to me until I saw this programme how much better it would be to celebrate their life while they're still alive. 

Roch Maher was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and given 18 months to live. That was eight years ago. Now approaching what he recognised as the end of his life, Roch decided to celebrate it with his family and friends while he could still speak and enjoy their company. Grayson made him a canoptic urn of the type used by the ancient Egyptians for their funeral remains, into which the guests placed mementoes of Roch's life: there were many, many bottles of beer, but the first and most moving contribution was the 'something blue' garter his wife had worn at their wedding. 

Grayson Perry has the gift of making his insights seem unremarkable and obvious, so it now seems extraordinary to me that although almost half of the marriages in the UK currently end in divorce, to date no faith or belief system has tried to create a ritual to mark it. 

Divorce is often messy, emotional and traumatic, but in episode two, we met Dilly and Mark who were doing their best to part on amicable terms having acknowledged that marriage had run its course.

For their outdoor ceremony in a nearby park, Grayson created a beautiful silk banner, with which he presented them, along with a huge pair of shears to cut it in half. 

Like the living funeral, the divorce ceremony provoked both laughter and tears from Mark and Dilly’s family and friends, but even without a specially commissioned Grayson Perry artwork to destroy, it is easy to see how a ritual in which a couple could express not just their sorrow and regret but also their hopes for the future could help to heal some deeply damaging wounds.

Rites of Passage is unapologetically provocative television but it doesn't upset, it inspires. 

Quite when I'll ever meet someone brave enough to participate in their own farewell I don't know. Sooner, perhaps, than I will meet a couple so emotionally mature as to contemplate a divorce ceremony, but one day someone will and I believe that Grayson Perry’s example will help them to invent their own ritual, full of meaning, emotion, and purpose. 

You should be able to catch both episodes for some time to come on All4, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.

Many humanists are scientists, by inclination if not actual training, and I noticed today a new summation of what humanists believe that places emphasis on 'science and reason'. As someone who failed physics 'O' Level and had a chemistry essay published in his school magazine as an example of 'humorous writing', you may already have guessed that doesn't describe me.

But even if I don't understand it, I'm a bit of a fan of science, especially when it's been wrapped in a pill of funniness, like this speech by Aaron Freeman. Freeman is a broadcaster and stand-up comedian as well as a physicist, which is a good thing otherwise I probably wouldn't understand it...

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics, that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. 
You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. 
And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith, indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. 
You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone, you’re just less orderly. Amen.
Aaron Freeman.
Find out more about Aaron Freeman here

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Beat butter and sugar until soft and creamy...

A witness to the first air raid of WWII, a proud 'Pelican' and a president of the Inner Wheel, Audrey had a long and rich life as a nurse, wife, mother and grandmother.

'An inveterate blether', as she was affectionately described by her loving husband Norman, Audrey had a gift for friendship, and wrote thousands of Christmas, birthday and other cards to the friends she made all over the world in the course of her eventful life.

When her daughters were growing up, their friends would always ask if their mum had made one of her famous cakes, so in tribute to that memory, Avril and Carol decided to include the recipe in her Order of Ceremony.

I thought that was a lovely idea, and I was really tickled to see it take pride of place when we said goodbye to her last week. 

One day, I must try to make this myself, although I'm sure it will never look or taste as good as Audrey's!