Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bodies and funerals part 2

In my last posting I attempted to avoid the anaesthesia of familiarity and "professional distance" with which we ministers numb our feelings when we deal with yet another grieving family. I did so in order to remind myself that the context of our discussion about the body in the box is emotionally highly intense. That intensity is what faces a minister as the funeral starts. What will she do with and in that context?

It's been a high-protein discussion, and it won't stop developing, because as we keep saying, it's at the centre of our attitudes to death and bereavement, and therefore it's at the centre of our culture.

I'll try to be more analytical in this posting.

Back in January I was mulling over a rational approach to bodies at funerals. A body isn't a person, to either an atheist or a believer in a spirit that survives death. It's finished with. So why do we bother with bodies in boxes if what we are doing is paying our respects/celebrating a life/ paying tribute, and all the other tags that we apply to funerals? (They get a bit starchy, don't they?) The body is the residue of a life. *It's not matter that matters," intellectually I know that, sometimes at least I can feel it, and does seem to matter, much of the time and to many people.

Our lives are embodied, we can only live this life in a body, and again, that's true whatever one's religion or philosophy. So we come to a funeral, and a huge mystery. This person is gone but this body is still here.

I do think we are rational creatures at least some of the time, and it's fashionable in some quarters to disdain reason. Despite its limits, we can't live for too long without it. But when we consider the body at a funeral, we run into some of those limits.

Seems to me we short-change our emotions when we don't acknowledge the pain of saying goodbye to a body (Jonathan put all this much more powerfully than I can, but stay with me please.) It is necessary to dispose of a body, but then there's all that part of us that isn't purely rational. We loved or liked that embodied life; I don't see that we can easily walk away saying "well that's over, my relationship now is with a memory." I don't think we can get there until we've done something real about/with the body. Whether it's the wailing and ululation at a Muslim funeral in some societies, or the subdued and powerful silence in some of our ceremonies, the passage away from us of a body really matters hugely.

So what are we doing? We are creating meaning for them, at a deep level. We are helping them leave a body behind, so that when they leave the crem or the graveyard they can enter a different world, one without that person, and live without a physical presence. We are finding meaning where we can in what has happened, and leaving them to develop that meaning, slowly no doubt and painfully too, in a changed world. Funerals (blindingly obvious, I know) do not provide "closure." I don't, in any case, want to be closed off from those I loved who are dead and gone.

Ha! There's the mystery. they haven't gone. Bits of them are still with me. I think or say "he would have loved that," I laugh because she taught me how to laugh at certain things without my even realising it. My views of important things are as they are because I spent time with him. And I refrain from certain actions because I despised her when she did them himself. For good and bad and everything in between, we are bits of other people.

So they are still there, but they've gone. That's why a funeral is pivotal in the grieving process, that's why we are creating a changed meaning for the body at the centre of the funeral.

I really don't believe there is one way better than another in this - it's not morally or even necessarily psychologically better to ululate and scream with grief, or to be quiet and sombre, and when we say it is, we are probably just defending our own preferences, because all this is dangerously powerful stuff.

And this is why we find ourselves emphasising the uniqueness of a funeral, at a time when traditional beliefs and mores have lost their rigidity of outline, or lost their power altogether, and so ancient ritual won't work properly. And that's why being a good minister (ministering to people's needs) is so difficult; we have very quickly and sensitively to decide how these people want to leave this body behind, often when they are not eloquent, even not very coherent, about it themselves. We have to help them explore the difference between "dad" and "it," that thing in the box. We have to help them weave his absence into the fabric of their world. Whether they believe it's au revoir or adieu, they have to say goodbye.

I greatly respect those people who are trying to create new rituals (in the sense that a ritual is more than a ceremony.) My problem is an almost instinctive mistrust of so-called "New Age" ritualism (every age is a new age..) and that's because it seems to me often superficial and easy. Aspects of paganism and nature-worship can help, I'm sure. But I feel more cautious than some in this debate.

Where I am now is: I will seek to encourage people to take the ceremony into their own hands more, to own the space, to think about what they want the funeral to do for them. If they don't want to do so, and they simply want "religious sans" (the conventionally-shaped half-hour secular funeral) then that's what they want, and I'll help them do it as well as possible. To say it yet again: my preferences don't matter.

I'm not a missionary for new funerals, or old ones. I know more about funerals than most of the families I work with, naturally, and I can seek to extend their view of what's possible. I'll do so to help them adjust from "him" to "it" (thanks again Jonathan) but no, I don't consider it a poor funeral because they are not sobbing, seem reserved, or even seem untroubled.

What do I really know of their hearts? After two hours and some phone calls? Why should I inwardly judge their taste in music because they want to hear "Time to Say Goodbye?" As XPiry points out, context is all, and a lousy (in my immodest opinion) song like that played out against closing curtains can be heart-rendingly right, can swiftly evaporate our "professional distance." (Memo to self - dump that last phrase, even in quote marks.)

Getting us all to a profounder, psychologically healthier relationship with the body at a funeral is a long and difficult task, because it involves big cultural changes in how we see deasth - we all seem agreed on that. Ministers can help, bit by bit. But it's going to take thought, argument and example. Mostly, I suspect we'll be led by families who have thought and felt all this through for themselves,well in advance. Trying to nudge shocked and numbed people towards a new kind of funeral is not my role. I'll continue to help them find out what they want, I may be able to help them see what they need, but my view of what I guess they need will always be well back in all this.

People have lived the lives they have lived, up to the point at which they lose someone they loved. The dead person, and the bereaved people's lives up to that point, and the relationship between the two: that is what will shape the funeral, in form, tone and content, and therefore in its effectiveness and function. That seems to me as it should be. My interventions are, and should be, carefully balanced and limited.

If I wanted to be a priest, I'd have been a priest.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Bodies and funerals part 1

Part of the function of a funeral is to dispose of a body, and yet you don't need a funeral to do so. So: what is a body doing at a funeral? Not much, answered the wag, but what I mean is: why is it there, what should we do with it, how do celebrants and undertakers think it's best to help mourners with their feelings and attitudes towards a body? Can I answer all these questions once and for all? Well, erm, possibly not, since it's a huge question that opens out into psychology, philosophy, sociology, politics, theology and so on and on. But the debate we're engaged in via The Good Funeral Guide is so valuable to me that the least I can do is to try to blunder into a view or two for your disposal.

The GFG discussions have certainly developed my views on this. If you're interested, see "a body isn't a person and a coffin is just a box, but..." 29 January, on this blog.

Whatever else we are or are not: we are animals. We animate a body. The pulse of energy that is a life ( a tiny moment in the universe) leaves behind it the physical entity that generated and sustained that energy. All this is true whether you think there is a soul, a spirit or some other survivable essence. (As you may have gathered, I don't think that's at all likely, myself.)

In our world as it is, we can only find meaning by relating to animated bodies (and in different ways the rest of the physical universe, of course.) An animated body is a living person, but a dead body is not. It looks as though it should be, it sometimes looks as though it still could be. All this is a huge shock and a great mystery. A life has stopped. A life force has gone. What now?

We may or may not go and look at the body-that-was-a-person again after it becomes inanimate. We may or may not pay for some skilful people to do slightly odd things with the body so that it looks as though it is "only sleeping." Sooner or later we will put this thing which was a person who mattered to us, but isn't a person any longer, into a box and either burn it or put it into the ground.

We keep telling ourselves it's not a person any longer, but where is the person? asks the mourner. Gone. In the box? No. That's a body not a person. You're going to have let go of it. Jesus Christ, that hurts, that really hurts. You mean I have to let go of this - relic that was someone I loved? How can I do that? Why is she not here? Where is she? Help me, please, for God's sake help me.

Enter the funeral celebrant. Easy task, then. Wind her/him up with a bit of training so she can manage a crem, and off she goes. No worries, she has her professional distance.

Er, hang on, that's an ex-37-year old mother in her box and her three children are in the front row, tears streaming down their faces, alongside their heroic father, who is trembling with grey-faced tension.

How are you doing with the distance thing? Unless you are the stoic of stoics, or an unfeeling self-centred fool, possibly not so well.

They want you, celebrant, (that title seems a bit silly now, perhaps...) to help them part with all that's physically left of their mother, his wife. They need you to hold it together, they want something coherent; you can't feel as they do, you can't understand how they feel, there's no reason why you should, but I don't think they want too much professional distance. When they met you, they were looking for a sign that you understood just a little of what's happened to them, and shared just a little of their grief, enough to empathise, not enough to make your ego too prominent. You are not one of them, and yet in a particular sense, you are, for a few very important days. You need to enter their circle of grief as a guest, not stand outside it looking in. Then they can relate to you, and you can get from them what you need to make something of their half-hour in that shabby desolate dump of a crem you're all lumbered with.

Right. here you go then.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Rupert's manifesto

..for so I take it to be, and this posting is a response in gratitude, not a counterblast. So, if you haven't read Rupert's outstanding piece over on the Good Funeral Guide blog,Monday 7th June, then I suggest you go there right now, or this will make even less sense than usual...

And whilst you're about it, Jonathan's comment, which should be a blog on its own, is an example of the best of the thought and feeling that is going on with those who are seeking a better kind of funeral, and therefore a life-enhancing relationship with human mortality.

Stuff this good is what blogs were invented for.

It's all a lot of reading, and so will this be, but presumably all this matters to you, or you wouldn't have got this far.

So, Rupert: I can only respond to such a thoughtful and lengthy piece in numbered points, so in no particular order:

1. A simple enough point for openers: for people who help with/lead/conduct funerals (there's a whole debate right there...) who are not ministers of religion, I agree, there doesn't seem to be a good title yet. "Officiant" is neutral and therefore sometimes useful, but it's dry as dust and suggests something official. Won't do. "Celebrant" can sound OK, or can jar horribly. Perhaps a new title will emerge as funerals evolve into something more profound and powerful than they often are at present.

2. Rupert's powerful and distinctive insights come from a special and valuable position, since he is both undertaker and, er, celebrant. This seems to me like a very good way ahead for some people. I couldn't do the undertaker end of it myself, and without seeking to offend anyone, I think that most of the undertakers I have worked with would not be well suited to the role of celebrant. To the few who in my arrogant opinion might be suited, I'm tempted to suggest it to them - but they would need to change their whole approach to the Dismal Trade, I suspect, and the BHA might frown at me for encouraging "competition." Oh dear oh dear.....too bad.

3. Recently, two members of a family asked me to send them a draft of the script, and the other said he didn't want to see a word of it, he wanted it to be new to him, then it would work better. Respect to him. Yes, I think if we can reveal to a family something they hadn't been able to fully realise, we've done them a real service (pun intended) but it's a big risk, because they might not want it revealed to everyone there. But:

4. Jonathan's comment is an excellent one - we may on occasion be doing the right thing by colluding, because a funeral is only a stage in the grieving. Might they need less than the whole truth at this stage? More than once I've had the knowing glance and the euphemism "he liked a drink" or "the drink could be a problem." They clearly wanted it mentioned just like that, because everyone at the ceremony would know what it meant. How much help would it be to say that X was an alcoholic with a dangerous temper, though great fun in the saloon bar on a Saturday night? That was what one family "revealed" to me without realising it fully.

Euphemisms and oblique references are not necessarily to be privately sneered at or dismissed, they can serve a valuable purpose; judging how far to go in this is a difficult skill to acquire,.
The reverse, less frequently, happens - the person who said, in preperation for the funeral of a sibling, that their father was a truly horrible, cold and oppressive seemed to me I needed to be very careful how I used that, if at all. S/he may have felt better saying it, but might well not have wanted to hear me say anything like so bluntly honest a view. Later, s/he phoned me to say just that -s/he told me not to burden the gathering with their scars, but just to offer some brief explanation of family circumstances. because their mother was still alive. Now, I may have felt that getting all that out in the open would be horrible for them, but maybe better in the long run - but the monster wasn't my dad, after all!

5.Some humanists are closer to anti-theists - maybe Rupert has been unfortunate in the company he has kept! Most humanist celebrants are atheists, who want to help provide funeral ceremonies for people who don't want a minister of religion and a religious funeral. They don't see it as their job to attack anyone's religion, I'm fairly sure they don't see much point to it, as celebrants, in funerals, however fierce they may get when they are down the pub. And of course, humanists might well be anti-theists if and when theism generates cruel and dangerous nonsense, but that sort of nonsense is surely to be opposed whatever its origin, and such issues are not likely to occure in your average humanist/non-religious funeral. If you ask for a non-religious funeral and you get a humanist, you shouldn't be getting a specifically anti-theist ceremony. If it looks as though you might, sack him/her at once and complain to the BHA! (I'm assuming accreditation with it.)

6. The enemy of spontaneity and productive danger is the crematorium time-slot. A funeral that allows for unstructured intervention and unpredictable events is not very liberating and authentic for the next family kept waiting outside, feeling tense, cold and miserable. Hanging about in crem waiting rooms can be about as pleasant as waiting for an overdue train at Crewe station. Someone, somehow, has to impose a shape and a time-scale on the funeral, and to do so without cramping it into a one-size-fits-all model is surely the ambition of any good celebrant.

7. I'm impressed that Rupert is confident, and obviously successful, without going through any training. I don't know how many of us could manage that. My training had its weaknesses, but I was grateful to it for getting me ready and able to take on funerals. It was good to work through it with others and compare thoughts and feelings. Any good celebrant surely moves beyond his/her training, and uses it to make it obsolete.

8. The three paragraphs in Rupert's piece beginning with the Bob Dylan quote are absolutely invaluable and appropriately challenging to all of us. (You really should nip over right now and read it, if you have a serious interest in funerals, and our attitudes to death.)

He emphasises the value of including, early on in the funeral, the journey the family have been through with the dying of s/he who is no more.

This is, in effect, a really helpful tip. I have sometimes instinctively groped my way to the value of doing this, and it does indeed make a hell of a difference. I have probably shied away from asking too much about the dying process in some family meetings because I don't want to cause people distress. I may only occasionally have been right in this - it's actually something people often really want to talk about. People are stronger than we sometimes allow them to be, and we too easily confuse signs of emotional distress with emotional damage. I've let them talk when they wanted to, but that's not the same thing as helping them to do so. For many celebrants, I'd guess that only experience brings the necessary sort of calm confidence. Ordinary human compassion makes us swerve round things that are upsetting people - we want to comfort them when we can't - but actually, I suspect it was my own fears I was swerving round, not their own grief. But - this is difficult stuff, difficult judgements, high stakes.

9. I don't want to quote much from Rupert's piece because I'd rather you read it, but this bit is essential to my response:

"...changing the nature of the service from a public event concerned with social appearances with the family present, to an intimate ceremony constructed around the truth, to which friends are welcomed."

Estimable though this impulse is, I'm afraid I feel the statement is more of the binary thinking that bedevils so much public debate. Funerals are often both things, i.e. both a public event in which social appearances have some consideration, and an intimate ceremony. Some bits of a funeral can be the former, other bits the latter. I'm not sure it's accurate to say that if a funeral is not as Rupert aims his ceremonies to be, then it is a public event concerned with social appearances with the family present. Isn't that a little reductive? In any case, to some people social appearances matter very little, to others they are essential to a good funeral, and who am I to say the latter are wrong?

10. I am getting now to the bits of Rupert's manifesto that I feel a sense of danger about - and I don't mean productive risk. He writes of a "social mask that often needs to be . . .broken, for the real work of grieving to begin." As a general statement about a desired social change - absolutely. As a statement about family A - who says that the celebrant should break that mask?

His experience is much broader and longer than mine, but my big anxiety is - who is to assess that need? Although I've learned a great deal about grief, I'm not a bereavement counsellor or a psycho-therapist, and I don't think I'm copping out here. I think the most I could help family A to do would be to assess and then express how much of their pain they want to share. There's not much I can do, in my two-hour meeting plus phone calls, to prevent them deflecting or avoiding pain. A degree of safety on the day, when the switchback of grief is throwing them all over the place, is exactly what they may want.

Am I being cowardly or too modest? Seems to me there is a limit to my role, and to attempt, through one fairly brief ceremony, however good, to alter the nature of their grieving, rather than responding to it as it is, that sounds to me like risk of the too dangerous kind! The funeral, seems to me, should embody the nature of their grief as I find it.

But of course Rupert's right, in that there is a bourgeois (sorry, showing my age..) shallowness about some funerals that moves them away from anything that could mean much to those truly grieving, and is merely a formality to be dispensed with a.s.a.p.

Big questions, no easy answers, very helpful debates.

Next time on these fun-filled pages - the significance of the body in our funerals.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Good Funeral Guide - book

It's very good, and I recommend it very strongly,for what that's worth . But it won't be an easy sell, I fear - I hope I'm wrong, because it could be a great help to very many people, but also because Charles provides such a valuable service to us all and for that reason too, I want it to do well .

Even if you don't buy it but feel you know enough about it or have seen and browsed it, or have used the website a lot, how about reviewing it on Amazon? That's always a help to a newly-published book.

Sorry I don't know how to make that a live link rather than a tedious cut and paste. Really ought to get to grips with this computer thingy one day soon....

Incidentally, I'm aware that since I keep banging on about how good the GFG is, you may feel Charles is bunging me a few bob to say so, or in some other way offering inducements. Alas not. He is, I'm sure, a man of principle.

Re my previous posting about holy vs heathen celebrants etc, I had hoped to stir some righteous indignation and argument. Maybe I'm getting too middle-of-the-middle-of-the-life-plus-a-bit-road, and it's too obvious and dull. Or maybe you're just on holiday? Anyway, if the 2.14 people on average who read this blog at least once every ten years would care to look at Monday 31st blog "Fruitless" etc... and blast away, I'd be delighted. Or not.