Production line burials that stifle mourning

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THE MODERN municipal funeral can seem a bleak and perfunctory affair. My grandmother had hers last week, and I spent most of the service worrying that the vicar would get her mixed up with someone else. In the event, he did get her name and most of the details right. But it must have been much easier when vicars knew the people they were burying, and did actually bury them, while the relatives threw earth at their coffins and said their sad goodbyes.

Crematoria most resemble provincial Soviet palaces of culture, with lots of blond wood, music coming through loudspeakers, and electrically operated curtains. (Why does the machine that operates the curtains make quite such a booming noise, and why do they always switch it on well before they need it?) Some funerals, the ones where death seems wantonly, outrageously inappropriate, can't help being moving, regardless of how they are conducted. But where death is expected, even fitting, mourning too often has to struggle against vicars who seem to be talking about a slightly different person, in the wrong language, on a funeral production line.

Vicars seem shy of suggesting to the bereaved that they participate more. (One friend tells me that when he decided to write something for the vicar to say about his father, the vicar seemed quite put out.) But that leaves the relatives of people who aren't grand enough for memorial services with little public opportunity to express their loss of a distinctive individual. Cremations can seem little more than body disposals, overlaid with a bit of religiosity, which for many is a necessary evil rather than a comfort. Vicars ought to encourage people to write or say something themselves, to choose a poem or something else which has mattered to the dead person. Otherwise it's hard to feel that the ritual isn't vaguely absurd.

THE FAMILIES, Children and Crime conference, organised by this newspaper and the Institute of Public Policy Research, produced some interesting ideas, mostly about where boys were going wrong (everywhere: they're just too masculine). But the most interesting moment came during the floor debate, when a black man stood up. Introducing himself, with proper regard for the subtleties of ethnicity, as a Jamaican Briton, he told us what he did for a living: something to do with housing in Birmingham.

He spoke eloquently, with a rich, rolling West Indian accent, of his childhood as the youngest of five in a single-parent family, and of how they were hit if they were just a bit slow getting under the shower. That, he said, was what he assumed the Government meant by getting back to basics, and the delegates broke into delighted applause. But then he described his fond feelings for a sick old man who had often beaten him with a strap when he was a child. Why couldn't we get back to basics, he wanted to know? Why was it no longer possible for policemen to give kids a clip round the ear, and adults to belt them when they didn't behave? The conference clapped again, still more enthusiastically.

If a white person - if, say, David Willetts, the right-wing MP, who had spoken earlier - had said this, there would have been a horrified intake of breath, perhaps even a lynching. But the Jamaican Briton was keenly applauded. I am still puzzling over why this should have happened. Do caring professionals assume they know what black people think, and so don't have to listen? Or do black people's politics not actually count?

I HAVE never been very keen on gyms, and my distaste was only confirmed by a report last week that 50 per cent of men who frequent them are really trying to pick up women. Men aren't, apparently, concentrating on their muscles when they're on those torture machines; they're fantasising about thong leotards. I have no idea what a thong leotard is, but it sounds perfectly disgusting. Although not, presumably, to President Clinton, who is so worried about the sedentary habits of Americans that he has asked his Council on Physical Fitness and Sports to find ways of getting the nation into the gym.

As a preliminary, the council conducted a survey, which revealed that Americans know perfectly well that they ought to exercise more, but have no intention of doing so. They claim they have less than 10 hours' leisure time a week, and are just too busy. The council, unimpressed, points out that 84 per cent of them watch television for at least three hours a week, and concludes they must just be lazy. Three hours a week] I am amazed America has any gross national product at all.

In our house, where we also do not feel we have enough leisure time, flopping down in front of the television is one of the few genuine family activities left. Virginia Bottomley was muttering rather alarmingly last week about British people being too fat. I hope she will put family values before slimness and consider that the last thing the fragile family needs is its members taking time out from communal television viewing and going down to the gym all by themselves to think about thongs.

A COLLEAGUE who has to take a lot of telephone messages when he's busy is fed up. It's not that he minds the messages, just the 071 bits of them. He says grumpily that people don't say 021 when they leave messages across Birmingham, so why bother with a completely redundant bit of number in London? He thinks we need a campaign against pointless numerals. I sympathise, but I doubt whether it would work: too many sensitive feelings are involved.

I have always tried to ignore the mushrooming London telephone number (soon to become 0171 and 0181), taking the view that people would just assume I was a central London type. In fact, they are constantly saying pointedly, 'Is that 071, then?' When 081 people do this, it's clearly to let you know that they don't accept your premise that one prefix is real London, and the other isn't. When 071 people do it, I fear it must be that I don't sound as metropolitan as I think.