Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Correspondence with The Oldie magazine

Posted in Oldie magazine by sheelanagigcomedienne on March 10, 2011

I wrote to THE OLDIE magazine about them doing something about LAST THINGS.  Even though I know it is very much an English, male, public school establishment magazine like Private Eye. Both editors Ingrams and Hislop are Christians which is think is really weird and creepy but still I sent it in.

Dear Oldie,

I am writing to you with the suggestion that you have a regular section on funerals/obituaries. It seems surprising to me that a magazine for us older folk does NOT have such a section as it feels like the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ because we do a lot of attending funerals and they play a significant part in our social lives. Is it cos you is English?  In Ireland, where I come from,  it is very much part of everyday life.  For Noel  Coward they were the cocktail parties of his set.

There is much scope for brief ‘Tales from the Crem’ with prizes for the Crème de la Crem. This could be snippets of things learnt about the deceased,  some funny anecdotes,  interesting  music  played, readings etc. I hear some amazing stories from crem staff and I could tell you the best value crem in London from my BEST BIER GUIDE.

I know that you don’t do retirement etc but who else can do the funny side of life/death/funerals but  The Oldie.

Yours sincerely,

Jeanne Rathbone.


Claire Daly replied.

Dear Jeanne Rathbone,
The editor would like to thank you for your suggestion. He thinks it might be worth you writing a one-off piece about this but he doesn’t think it would make a regular piece.
Please note that this is not a commission and it all depends on how it is written as to whether we publish it.
Very best wishes,

I sent a piece and got this rejection email from Jeremy Lewis.

Alas, this isn’t quite right for the Oldie. I’m so sorry.

Jeremy Lewis



My piece on LAST THINGS – death, funerals and Oh bits.

Funerals are a significant part of the social life of older people. Noel Coward reckoned they were the cocktail parties for the older set. The usual sequence is, if we are lucky, old age, death, funeral and the ‘Oh bits’. There are obituary sections in newspapers but little about funerals. A monthly magazine EULOGY devoted to death and funerals doesn’t seem to have taken off, except online. Molly Parkin graced the cover of the first edition in June 2010. There was scepticism expressed about the likely success of a glossy lifestyle magazine about death and funerals. Yet there are 500,000 deaths and funerals a year in the UK. Despite funerals being very much part of life for everyone, especially folk of an uncertain age, the lack of reference to funerals in mainstream media does seem like ‘the elephant in the room’. Yet when funerals come up in conversation you can hear some great anecdotes.

Funerals are still very much integrated into daily life in Ireland. People in Britain erroneously refer to a reception held after a funeral as a ‘wake’. An Irish ‘wake’ is held the night before a funeral with the open coffin kept in the home overnight. We had one a few years ago for my mother. To James Joyce they were funforals. The recent popular series on Gypsy lifestyles on TV focussed mainly on Irish Travellers and their extravagant Catholic weddings and the Daily Star mentioned talks of a sequel  – My big, fat gypsy Funeral. It is not quite what I had in mind but it is a start.

Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” in 1963 was a caustic attack on the dismal trade as undertaking was known then. Thomas Lynch’s “The Undertaking” is somewhat of a rebuttal. He is an undertaker and a poet and suggests that our fear and mistrust of undertakers is less a rational response to a creepy profession than the result of our own messy and conflicted feelings about death itself. Funerals aren’t conducted for the sake of the dead (who, after all, aren’t there to appreciate them); they are “something done for the living … something done by the living.” The desire many people have for a quick and painless funeral, as Lynch suggests of those who tell relatives to “just throw me in a cardboard box” is in reality a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to deny the problem of death itself.

As a Humanist celebrant I tend to agree with Lynch about our attitude to death but contend that the funeral trade is still male and conservative. I mainly do dispatchings and so I, too, have given some thought to funerals . We are all going to die but as our longevity increases there is a resistance to dealing with death and funerals more openly. When someone dies we say they have ‘passed away’ . This euphemism is an indication of the problem and the Python Parrot Sketch is still the funniest example of it. So let’s all start to acknowledge the reality of our mortality by only uttering the wordsa death and died. The Irish have a strange condolence mantra. They say: ‘Sorry for your troubles’. I had been away from Ireland for decades when I first heard this at my father’s funeral. The troubles that immediately came to mind were the one’s up in the north of Ireland or the other ones ‘down there’ –  my gynaecological ones.

In Ireland funerals are mainly burials but cremations are up to 15% now with four crematoria one of which is in Rocky Island Cork. There had been plans to build one near a village in Cork a few years ago but there was strong opposition from the locals who felt they would become laughing stock because their village was called OVENS. Honestly, you can google it. Catholicism, at one time disapproved of cremation because of their belief in resurrection and so historically they would only burn heretics!

For Humanists a funeral is about saying goodbye to the person who has died, the opportunity to acknowledge and mourn the loss of someone whom we loved and cared about alongside others but most importantly it is a time to celebrate and to commemorate the dead person whose body is in the coffin. There is no mention of a God, his son or another interminable sort of life to come.

I have heard people refer to me as the humanitarian minister and the humorist lady.  I accept either title as befits someone who has been in the comedy business. I agree with George Bernard Shaw  ‘ Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh’. I adopted the comedy name Sheela-na-Gig – a masturbating, Irish female stone carving. One reviewer described me as the Irish, female Rab C. Nesbitt and another compared me to the great Dave Allen whose funeral I had the privilege to conduct. Incidentally, I could envisage him making a sketch of the fact that I have to ask the crem staff to remove any mobile cross/crucifix which makes me feel like a vampire.

Being a Humanist celebrant is a grown up job. I came to it having been to a few inappropriate and unsatisfactory funerals. I had long been an atheist and I contacted and joined the British Humanist Association. In the bumph they sent was a request for people to train as ‘funeral officiants’. This was a eureka moment for me as I realised that I had found what I wanted to be when I grew up and I had the skills and experience required. I trained and knew that, at last, I had grown up. Thank you BHA.

I found this quote from Jerry Seinfeld which might explain why there is a demand for funeral celebrants.  “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”.

We deal with grief, anger, sometimes tragedy, guilt, love, loyalty, devotion, family dynamics, divided families etc. Every life is interesting in its own way. There is usually laughter and tears. We celebrants can be a bit like your taxi drivers name dropping as to whom we had in the front of our chapel. We can relate stories about the drunks, the hecklers, the fights, the prisoners chained to warders, the feuding families, the cut-out- of-the- will son, the mistress and her daughter sitting separately, folk fainting, heart attacks and lots of gossip.

The best part of our work is hearing the lifestories- each one a novelette. I don’t read much fiction anymore. Garrison Keillor said: ‘They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize I’m going to miss mine by just a few days”  So often people remark to me afterwards that the deceased would have enjoyed it all and I say that we should get better at saying those things about them whilst they are still alive – usually at a significant birthday celebration but NOT at a retirement ‘do’.  Incidentally, it is very noticeable that people who are members of a club – golf, bowls, bridge etc. have well attended funerals.

I reckon all of you readers have a fund of good funeral stories to tell. The Oldie would be a good place to start telling them. I would love to hear them.

Jeanne Rathbone

3rd March 2011.

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