Letters: Funerals and grief

The funny side of death and an indictment of funeral directors
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The Independent Online

Sir: Sue Arnold is not alone ("My mother would have seen the funny side of death", 19 July). When my mother died two years ago, the funeral director was no better. We gritted our teeth as she continually referred to "Mum". We winced as she suggested putting personal items in the coffin, "like 20 Benson" (my mother never smoked in 84 years). Our eyebrows were raised as she stated the venue would be "Beckham Crematorium", when Beckenham is a large town about three miles from here.

The best was still to come. Reading from a prepared sheet, she was apparently supposed to ask if, as far as we were aware, my mother had died as a result of privation. In fact she asked if "Mum" had died as a result of privatisation. "Well," said my brother after an awkward silence, "that's a long story." Our mother, too, would have seen the funny side.



Sir: Sue Arnold's tale of her encounter at the hands of a funeral director is a sad indictment of some members of the funeral trade. All funeral directors pride themselves on offering a 24-hour service so what, exactly, is out-of-hours? And, as we are all aware of climate change and the need for eco-friendly practices, it is shameful a funeral director to say a cardboard coffin would have to be "specially ordered".

The harsh reality is that most funerals are sold to families at a time when their emotional defences are down and they are loath to question the service provider. Wholly independent guidance, without commercial influence, can be had from the Natural Death Centre, a registered charity which advises on all matters about inexpensive, family-organised, and environmentally friendly funeral options.



Disaster response late and piecemeal

Sir: Aside from the issue of flood prevention, this most recent spate of flooding highlights the inadequate response from all levels of authority to deal with the rescue and evacuation of victims.

As laudable as efforts are, I have difficulty understanding how helicopters and small inflatable rafts dealing with people on an almost individual basis is the most effective response.

I am confused why our fire and rescue services are the main source of manpower and I am flummoxed why the military, which can provide more manpower armed with amphibious vehicles and other equipment designed specifically to operate in afflicted areas, have not been employed.

The late, piecemeal response by local and central government to a major disaster draws a comparison to how US authorities dealt with the victims of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.



Sir: Terrible though this flooding is, I recall the appalling floods on part of England's east coast in 1953, caused by a severe storm surge, resulting in an exceptionally high tide that killed 300 people and left damage estimated at £5bn in today's money.

The year before, 34 people died when floods struck Lynmouth, in Devon, after more than 9ins of rain fell on Exmoor in 24 hours. Waves swept the high street at devastating speed. People weren't even aware of flooding until they turned a corner and were swept into the sea along with rubble and vehicles. Houses and occupants disappeared.

Appalling though the present situation is in England, at least victims aren't assailed by water travelling at such speed, a near-silent killer force. Small mercies.

As for global warming: one minute we are told we are in for severe droughts and deaths from the heat, now we learn we are in for monsoons every summer. Which is it?



Myths dismissed about cannabis

Sir: I read the article "Debunked: politicians' excuse that cannabis has become stronger" (21 July) with some amusement, coming as it did the day after Matthew Norman's - at times - outrageously ill-informed Opinion piece on the drug.

I have some experience with marijuana and those who smoke it, and the notion that smoking skunk could make you believe you are a "bassett hound" is at first hilarious. But this soon gives way to serious concern. It is disturbing that such patent nonsense can be disseminated, particularly at a time when the drug's classification seems to be under reconsideration. From mixing his skunk with more hallucinatory drugs such as acid (LSD), Mr Norman then goes on to say that a particular strain of marijuana, White Widow, is "cocaine-sprinkled". The formation of crystals on the plant may give this effect, but this is a silly and well-known myth.

The irony, of course, is that most people "in the know" will undoubtedly be disinclined to take the effort (or risk) to correct such prejudicial twaddle.



Sir: Matthew Norman is right to point out that today's skunk is much stronger and more potentially harmful than the "weed" of 10 years ago, though his description of his hallucinogenic experience is absurd, unless someone had slipped ayahuasca into his joint that is (Opinion, 20 July). The hallucinogenic properties of THC cannot induce a hallucination such as the one he describes.

But skunk certainly has harmful effects, and for a year I was near suicide due to cannabis-induced psychosis; it was the worst period of my life. Eventually, I realised what was causing my problems, and with help I gave up. Within a short time, I was back to my old self. Reclassifying cannabis is not the answer. To reduce the damage done to young people by cannabis we need to educate and inform them about the risks. Threatening them with a more severe punishment will achieve nothing.

Part of the reason it took me so long to stop smoking skunk was because I didn't realise it could be behind what I was going through. A more open and honest approach from the Government, police and education authorities could have changed that.

Criminalisation and punishment are not the answer. It has been many decades since Prohibition in America and still it seems we have learnt nothing.



Sir: Here in Canada, we have the highest number of cannabis smokers per capita, and some of the most potent cannabis in the world. As medically licensed users, my wife and I each use several grams every day, and have for years. Our life has only improved with use of cannabis. Why are Canadian emergency rooms not filling up with "psychos"? Because the link between cannabis and psychosis is wildly exaggerated. Correlation is not causation: the psychotic symptoms could have been triggered by any number of things, but as soon as cannabis is mentioned, it is pinpointed as the culprit.

Does the UK media and government honestly think anyone is dumb enough to believe their Reefer Madness 2? Apparently.



Telling quotes after 'cash for honours'

Sir: In your report of the CPS decision on cash for honours (21 July), there are a couple of interesting quotes. Tony Blair said: "I want to make it clear that I level no criticism at the police. They were put in an invidious position by the SNP."

Bear this in mind if you notice suspicious activity, either criminal or possibly terrorist, in your area. If you report this to police and they find sufficient evidence to justify further investigation, but the CPS then decides against charging anyone, politicians will blame you. And the Labour MP Denis McShane said people were put through "the most impossible torture". That puts the experience of Middle East kidnap victims into perspective. Oh yes, Abu Ghraib was actually a holiday camp.



Age discrimination for the over-50s

Sir: You report that Peter Hain is to "coax lone parents and over-50s back to work" (16 July). We are glad the Government recognises that it needs to get more people over 50 back to work but those people must be targeted.

Government policies to increase skill levels work reasonably well for those between 25 and 39, but not for those over 40.

The Government will struggle to get people over 50 into work if the threat of mandatory retirement ages remains. Up to one million older people are underemployed. Those over 65 can be openly discriminated against and dismissed on the basis of age alone.



Transport must have a higher priority

Sir: I applaud Steve Richards (Opinion, 19 July) for raising the issue of transport as an area in which Gordon Brown apparently has little interest.

The apathy shown by politicians towards transport policy is alarming, not least from the environmental perspective. News that the taxpayer is likely to foot the bill for the financial implosion of Metronet is not only an immediate concern for commuters, it is likely to have a far wider impact on the rest of the industry as further funds are diverted from enhancement projects to another emergency bail-out.

Ken Livingstone may have been told not to gloat about Metronet's collapse, but I imagine he's not exactly delighted at the prospect of hosting Olympic Games that may be hamstrung by inadequate transport infrastructure as the Tube upgrade risks being scaled back, just as the ill-conceived West Coast mainline rail upgrade was in the wake of the Railtrack debacle.

Outside London, the Treasury's desire to balance the books continues to take precedence over any enthusiasm to encourage travel by greener modes. Luckily, airport expansion means domestic flights will remain a real option for most journeys of more than, say, 200 miles. We could feel guilty about the country's obvious inability to find a way around this, but then if Gordon isn't bothered, maybe we don't need to be either.



Sir: The taxpayer spends £2bn a year subsidising fuel-guzzling buses with millions of empty seats (except in central London and a few other special situations), because transport planners refuse to recognise that conventional fixed-route bus services cannot meet the journey needs of many people.

The driver and fuel costs (and subsidies) of such buses would be more efficiently used to provide convenient shared transport in smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, able to negotiate all roads. Technology is available to arrange appropriate "Demand Responsive Transport" (DRT), generally in eight-seater vehicles or smaller taxis, either as a regular booking or at short notice. This is done in Germany.

At High Wycombe there are 150 train arrivals and 162 departures a day, and train arrivals and departures require differently timed connections. Also, each train arrival and departure generates a variable mix of passenger numbers, onward destinations and journey origins. Conventional bus services at busy rail stations could never offer good matches for so many unpredictable variables, but DRT could, so reducing car parking, fuel use and congestion.



Extracting taxes

Sir: Like our new Prime Minister, I have been unable to find an NHS dentist. Unlike him, I imagine, I have a huge tax bill to pay at the end of the month. I have paid my dentist, so far, close on £1,000. I plan to claim this as an expense against tax. Any thoughts?



'T Rex' was first

Sir: In 2002, I exhibited a work called "T Rex" in a mixed show with the Chapman brothers. The piece was a plaster relief made with a large plastic dinosaur and a plastic crucifix to give an impression of being fossilised remains. The Chapman brothers' interests in dinosaurs, religion and the "relationship between art and extinction" developed after I had shown this piece on these themes. The exhibition was called "New Religious Art", curated by Neal Brown at the Liverpool Biennial. I must have made more of an impression then I thought.



Poaching doctors

Sir: Peter Wotton (letters, 16 July) asks where, in view of the shortage of science teachers, are our future doctors to come from? The answer is, as has long been the case, they will be poached from developing countries which can ill afford to lose them, though perhaps in view of recent events fewer will be recruited from the Islamic nations.



Calling for one for all

Sir: I recently went away with my daughter, and we took our mobile phones. Her charger will not fit my phone, so we both had to take our own. Why can't all makes of mobile phones, iPods, digital cameras etc be made to take one universal charger? The manufacturers should conform to a standard connector. There must be skip-loads of obsolete chargers thrown out every year.



Historical truth

Sir: Tony Pearce (letter, 21 July) asks if "a map which has the word Palestine over the territory of Israel and the word Israel in the sea" is the road map to redemption. Rather, it is a description of historical fact. Before the West created Israel in 1948, all that territory was Palestine. Israel was an off-shore threat of Zionist invasion.



Faith of Simpsons' fans

Sir: So Pagans have been offended by the proximity of the 70ft underpanted figure of Homer Simpson to the Cerne Abbas giant (letter, 21 July). Has anyone thought of the effect on the feelings of us Simpsons believers of the obscene, mocking priapic monster being so close to our icon? It is either a blasphemous slight on the sexuality of the Springfield Patriarch, or a jibe at his obvious fecundity. We of the Simpsons' faith do take comfort, because the figure of Homer is much the better-drawn.