Friday, 29 January 2010

A body isn't a person and a coffin is just a box - but...

Sorry it's so long - it's a big subject.

An obvious enough point to open with: the attitude towards the coffin and the body inside it at a funeral is probably different for every single person at that funeral. This doesn't mean that we should not try to make intelligent cultural generalisations about attitudes towards the body at a funeral but I think that the job in hand is to find a workable relationship at a funeral ceremony between the audience and the coffin. I think this has to take priority over any personal views I may have about changing our attitudes towards bodies at funerals.

I have taken crematorium funerals at which the bereaved family has wanted to enter not behind but alongside the coffin, carrying it or at least with a hand on the coffin, if it is on a trolley. Sometimes families will ask for the curtain (or whatever the coffin disappearing mechanism might be) not to be drawn. In my view, this can make it harder for the bereaved to leave at the end of the ceremony because there has been less of a structured farewell. But against this, for such families, comes the need they have to go over to the coffin at the end of the ceremony, stand by it, put more flowers on it, rest a hand on it for a moment and so on.

I have also taken funerals at which the bereaved family want as little as possible to do with the coffin and they are clearly much relieved when the curtain is drawn. This is not necessarily an indication of the depth of their grief, of course.

I have taken many fewer burials than cremations, but I have not observed any substantial differences in the attitude of the bereaved to the coffin (allowing for obvious translations between a crematorium plinth and an open grave.)

As a celebrant, I feel I have to walk a fine line between offering advice on the way the funeral could go and making sure that the family get the ceremony they want; after all, it is their ceremony and not mine, and my job is to help them identify and then realise their preferences.

I used to feel that differing attitudes towards bodies were only the product of religious beliefs or their absence. So a full-blown atheist might be expected to regard the body as the relic life has left behind, to be disposed of appropriately via a suitable ceremony, the body as an object, having no special significance or resonance once life has left it.

Whereas, Christianity used to be a resurrective religion, in that there was a literal belief that the dead would rise again in their bodies from their graves (see the paintings of Stanley Spencer) and therefore had, presumably, a very different attitude towards the body at a funeral. It seems to me now that most Christians don't believe that and I must say I find that a bit of a relief because I never could resist seeing such an event as a sequence from a very tacky horror flick!

In fact I can see little difference, in theory, between atheists and religious people, because if religious people believe that a spirit or soul has left the body behind, then presumably it is no longer needed, just as an atheist would say that the life has ended and the body is simply what is left over. And yet - it doesn't seem like that in practice. It's tough parting with the body in the box at funerals. If anyone is going to get upset, it'll probably be at the committal.

So I was being a little naive, about what I expect from atheists and religious people. Somehow, people have to let a body go. It's very difficult to do, because the life of the person they knew was embodied - literally, in that body. The life and the body were the same thing. The body is now a different body, and the mourners have to move towards seeing it as different - something they must let go of. They have to leave with something non-physical, with an enhanced sense nof the meaning of the life that is ended. My job is to help them do that, in the way that best suits them.

In many ancient societies, bodies were buried with the accoutrements the person used in his/her lifes, in the belief that they would be useful in an afterlife. We have a sentimental relic of this in the way some people want their loved ones cremated or buried with an object or two that mattered to them when they were alive. I am not being judgemental or unkind when I call this sentimental; I mean it literally, it is a matter of sentiment and feeling, not of any actual belief that the items will get used again.

Let me try to some up some views:
1. The box is a nuisance, because it isn't the person. The meaning of that person's life is in the thoughts - in the hearts, if you prefer - of the mourners. The box upsets people, and stops them concentrating on the life they are there to celebrate. The body inside the box is finished with. Saying goodbye to it is not saying goodbye to the person. The best sort of an event might be a memorial ceremony without a coffin, so we can concentrate on the life, not the remains.

2. A funeral is a rite of passage; the box must be part of that rite, so that people feel they have said a farewell to the person, but it is appropriate to distance the box from the mourners because it is an item in a ceremony, not the person him/herself - it represents, or symbolises, the living person. A body is not a person. So it's appropriate to have the coffin at a distance most of the time.

3. It is the person we are saying goodbye to. The box should be at the centre of things, possibly even open so we can see the person. We can't say goodbye to the person without saying goodbye to the body - after all, they were the same thing, for all the years of a life.

Well, unless you make a real effort, you'll get something close to #2 at a standard UK crematorium or cemetery. I took a funeral that was held in a village hall, with the body in a wicker coffin up front. Family speakers went over and laid a hand on the coffin once or twice; speakers spoke directly to the coffin, addressing the body by name. We then progressed to a graveyard for a brief burial ceremony (in the pissing rain, as sadly so often seems to happen.) Those people didn't actually think there was a person in the box, but it helped them say goodbye. It was a #2-type ceremony, but nicely individualised and made more human in scale. One reason is because it wasn't in a crematorium. More on crems another time.

So with respect to the excellent Mr Long*, I can see a real point, for some people, in a funeral/memorial ceremony without a body, following on from a committal (or preceding it, as above) attended by a few people only.

But whatever my views about the body in the box, my function is to tune the ceremony to the family's views and attitudes. If we want a richer ceremony than the standard #2 usually is, I think that has to come about through thought, discussion, social change etc, I don't want to force the pace with the families I work with - though Mr Long has made me think that my funerals could be better ceremonies if they sometimes offered families a little more ritual about them, and that would require some creativity and some tact on my part, not to force the pace. But I'm quite cautious - one of the blokes at one of the crematoria said to me that he'd seen it all - pagan funerals with robes and candles and flowers everywhere, people standing on the chairs, people dancing at the front. Well, I've not been asked for that yet. Though I did have a rogue piper once - but that's another story...

* blog The Good Funeral Guide, 29 January 2010.


  1. I have referred to this post over at mine:

    I hope I have served your post (and your blog) by doing so, because I think it's really good. Do let me know if I have transgressed:

  2. No transgression, Charles, rather, big thanks from me. You're welcome to quote, it helps people find my blog.
    Your video clip "The Obachan Funeral" highlights the pain of the transformation from a life-that-is-a-body to remains, to be disposed of. Something that struck me: given the viewing arrangements at that crematorium (right up to the cremator itself) there was no sense whatsoever of ritual or ceremony to create meaning for the bereaved. If the crem let the mourners go "backstage," then what happens must still be part of the "performance," surely. Otherwise, it's just a waste disposal procedure totally unsuited to mourners' presence. A funeral is a narrative which should create meaning, and that was in one sense meaningless, and in another sense, destructive of meaning.It should have been part of the funeral.
    best wishes

  3. I think one of the rituals that we have lost is holding vigil with the dead. Our societies now are so governed by the business model and do not serve the families who are the consumers. We expect the families to say goodbye in a structured time frame. Grief my friend is messy and disorganized.

    see my blog where we tried to give family back control of a horrific circumstance.