Friday, 12 February 2010

are funerals any good?

Following on from my last post, then:

It's difficult to make generalisations about whether funerals are any good or not, because many of us have strong feelings about them, and those feelings will vary according to beliefs, experiences etc, so let's try this: if a funeral is good for the family and other mourners, it's good, whatever it's like. Many of us who work in and around funerals seem to want funerals to be very different from how they are, we tend to want fuller, more varied, more creative ceremonies, that involve more of the mourners.

I'm not sure bereaved families always want these things themselves. A funeral ceremony belongs to the family; an officiant, be s/he a vicar or anyone else, has the function of helping the family to realise and put into effect what they want. It's not for us to try to move a family's wishes on to something we might see as more meaningful, fuller, etc. Officiants - well, me, at least - could be better at making more creative suggestions, but there is a common and growing assumption that if a ceremony is fairly restrained, dignified, delivered entirely by an officiant, that it is a poor ceremony. Not necessarily so. It's only no good if the officiant is keeping out dimensions that a family wants in, or s/he does not know how to suggest options to a family. I think we have to take our lead from the family.

I saw the joke when a comedian (Jeremy Hardy, perhaps) said that he didn't want a humanist funeral, because they come and camp out on your lawn for a week. I've taken several funerals at which the nearest and dearest just wanted an ordinary secular funeral, what Charles ("The Good Funeral Guide") calls neatly and accurately, "religious sans", that is: introduction-few thoughts on life and death - tribute - reflections - commital - conclusion and out, three pieces of music and here they are. Thanks, give me a ring if there's a prob otherwise see you out front on the day.

Seems to me that we do often short-change ourselves, we do short-circuit important emotions, we do miss the chance for something more meaningful and beautiful, possibly even something that's more fun, a lot of the time. But what many of us are pressing for actually involves re-thinking much of our common attitudes towards mortality. It's a bit late when you are discussing with next of kin a funeral that has already been booked in a week's time (people will rush into it), that isn't the time, I feel, to start re-engineering cultural attitudes towards death.

It is for people who are already on this journey in their lifetimes to ensure that their funerals, and those close to them who die before them, are not incoherent. By incoherent, I mean they do not align with the person who has died, nor with his family. I guess George Melly's funeral was coherent - he had, of course, a jazz band to play him in and out, decorated coffin, etc, but in basic format it was, I understand, quite conventional. It was at a crem. Humph too, though I understand the family had a private celebration.

I do wish more people would have a memorial/celebration event away from the crem, and just a committal before or afterwards. That would give us the freedom we want to help families explore further and feel more.

The key to changing funeral habits lies with people who are working on their understanding of own mortality, and with funeral directors/arrangers, who need to be emotionally and culturally literate enough to open out the discussion and help the family choose the right celebrant. If a big cultural change does come about, families will be choosing their own celebrants more and more, doing more things for themselves - and the role and function of FDs will change drastically.

A few FDs are there already, potentially or actually. But mostly it's still about big black cars and deafault mode solemnity. I agree that we need to reach out and help people see what a funeral could be, (not should be)but I also think we need to be sure that our disapproval of most current funerals, whether it is aesthetic or more profound, doesn't cause us to try to impose our own imperatives on others.

At present, many families don't have the cultural or emotional resources to re-invent a funeral for someone they love, because their own feelings about mortality wouild make that impossible for them. We have to tread carefully. The family arranging the funeral of a man who died at 91, a private sort of person, a WW2 veteran, with "old-fashioned" virtues and views, who was not religious ("the War saw that off for him..."), doesn't want a jazz band, a painted coffin, a green burial, candles at the points of the compass. I might, they don't.

They just want a standard crematorium ceremony, and the celebrant's job is to deliver a well-written ceremony, with as much input as the family wants, directly or indirectly. Her/his job is to help the mourners find meaning in the ceremony, and in the changed circumstances of their lives as they emerge from the (probably pretty ghastly) crem. Her job is help them pay tribute, celebrate a life, recognise everything that they still have though the old man has gone.

It is putting our cultural imperatives at a higher value than theirs to feel they really ought to be doing something very different. Religious sans may be just right for them. They may like black limos. I don't - but I'm damned if I'll allow myself to look down my nose at them, or dismiss them by saying they get the funeral they deserve. Maybe they get the funeral they actually want. Such funerals are not worthless, or meaningless, or cheap and nasty - they are certainly not cheap.

Me, I'd like to do more candles and jazz bands, memorial events not crem standard 25 minutes. Of course I would. I'd like more strong emotions, less structure, more participation. But that's me, not necessarily him and them. Our job is to serve him and them as they are today, not as we wish them to be, and work away at changing how weall view our mortality so that people will soon be saying "what the hell do I want a black limo for? He wasn't a mafioso" And "25 minutes and a few tired sandwiches? I'll have ten minutes at the crem with four people, and a proper do in the Dog and Duck, where no-one will be permitted to talk about the weather, their journey here and home again, and everyone has to offer up a memory or a thought about him. " And so on.

I think it's time I turned back to my main preoccupation in this blog, which is how we live a mortal life, but should anyone read this and comment, I'll be happy to take the comments further.

If you've got this far, thanks, and sorry to bend your ear. I'm a bit startled by how much this all seems to matter to me.


  1. Very good points about cultural imperialism. Quite right, too.

    No, people must have what they want. If they see something 'better' and want that instead, so much the better. I think people may be persuaded by better exemplars.

    For me (I stress: for me) it all came to a head when, as celebrant, I surveyed the faces in front of me. I was giving it my best shots and I thought, "I'm doing all the work here. And that's wrong." And I haven't done another since.

    My feeling is that we live in the age of the emotionally manageable funeral. I'd like to think that we will progress to the emotionally valuable funeral. But I fully acknowledge that I may be out of step.

    Big questions do not have little answers - or, often, any answers at all. Once more, you have asked a big 'un!

    It's good to read something that makes you THINK!!! Thank you!

  2. Another nail firmly struck on the head, Charles - from emotionally manageable to emotionally valuable. That's excellent. I don't think you're out of step, I think your'e helping most effectively to encourage the exemplars you refer to. And I'm sure it is through exemplars that things will change - are changing. Valuable thoughts, so thanks back to you. Incidentally, aren't you supposed to be on your hols? Good of you to check in share more thoughts, but isn't it time for a pint??