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.


  1. Wow – that’s quite a post.

    It’s a good question – why is the body so important? Even if we don’t believe that the person is “there” any more, we still treat the body with the utmost respect and deference (well, in public at least). Why? Out of respect to a memory? For fear of upsetting those who were close enough to love and know the person? Because we’d like someone to do the same with our body one day?

    I can feel your pain at the sample given (mine was 42 and had 2 kids, but the feelings are, I’m sure, very similar). Actually, at the end, my voice had a little crack. It was while introducing the exit music, a tribute from the man to his dead wife, and hearing “you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me” being played to a pair of slightly faded velvet curtains does have a tragedy about it.

    What can we do for people? We do our best. And although this is no reason to do anything other than our utmost, I do have a sneaking suspicion that those who are most grief-stricken don’t listen to a word we say, anyway. They’re just getting through it, standing up when everyone else does, and spending all of their time and energy trying not to howl.

    I don’t know the answers to your question, Gloria, and I suspect that there may not be any. Having done a memorial service/funeral without a body, it all went fine, but felt very different and, to me, a little incomplete. For that particular family, however, it was better than being part of a conveyor belt at the local crem.

    I’ve rambled enough and would love to know what others think.

  2. Thanks very much, XP for these thoughts. Your first paragraph gives me my departure point for part 2 of this funtime subject - coming soon (-ish.)

    I was trying to pitch the emotional level quite high, because of how much a coffin and a body can mean at a ceremony. We are so used to coffins, and I have to remind myself, as it were, that inside that odd object is all that is left of someone who mattered very much to at least of the people in the room with me.

    Also, I think the ways in which our own experience guides us to a balance point between being entirely unmoved, except in a very superficial and conventional sense, and being seriously (i.e disablingly) upset is an interesting thing, and because I suspect that some ministers (celebrants) are not much moved by what they do, much of the time, and I'm puzzled by this.

    I include priests in this, and I mean unmoved except in that general and conventional way, i.e. not callous but not much involved. We all have to find our way, each time, on this one.

    Like you, I've done one or two body-less memorial ceremonies. H'm. Moving, but different.

    I can never tell what is going to catch me - might be a few words from a poem, might be one little anecdote I'm repeating from the family horde, might be some awful gloopy song that usually means nothing to me, might be the front row. I certainly have to keep my gaze away from the faces of distressed children in the front row. Of course they should be there, it will help them in the long run. And then sometimes, outside,the shadow seems to have passed from their faces (depends on the age, I guess.)

  3. Oh, yes, rule number one for celebrants: don't look at the front row; not now.

    Very interesting point XP makes about the audience not listening to a word. It's a sensation readily reinforced by the look on their faces. There are some lines from Owen Sheers which express this well:

    it's not matter that matter,
    or our thoughts and words,
    but the shadows they throw

    against the lives of others.

    I have a dark suspicion that professional distance is closely related to power and well divorced from proper humility or even human kindness. There may be bad faith here, and injury to the spirit of celebrants such as these. Empathy means what it says on its tin. We weep for one, we weep for all. And we have a job to do, too. So there's our course.

    Given that there's this need to, in Jonathan's words, 'make sense of the difference between you and it', I am surprised that contemplative silence is not used more at funerals, and this the set exercise.

  4. As for empathy:

    "No man is an island, entire of itself alone. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore send not to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee."

    With apologies to the might Donne for truncating his wonderful words, no less powerful for being familiar.

    Valuable suggestion, Charles, the silence thing. I was the celebrant (it works in this context) at a friend's wedding recently. She doesn't care for any "religion," he was brought up a Quaker. We had five minutes' silence in the middle of readings etc. I explained what the silence was for, i.e. how the couple would like it used.
    Everybody, saints and sinners, he and she, really enjoyed it! Powerful thing, silence. Not much of it about these days.

  5. "It's not matter that matters"

    The s matters. Sorry about that. I think that's a very important thought and should be at the heart of celebrant training.

    Yes, silence. And of course it's related to pace and, for a celebrant, word count. Silences around words, phrases, thoughts. 70 words a min max?

    I once had a crack at the Quaker thing. Couldn't handle. Just waited. It's a discipline. A valuable one, I am sure of that.

    Oh yes: as you say, Donne had it!

  6. The collection grows. "It's not matter that matters," "the difference between him and it," beneath both of which sit big and very valuable ideas. And now, we can add pace, and silence between words and phrases. (In jazz, Miles Davis showed us how to feel a phrase more, because of the little silences around it.) These things are sometimes dismissed as "techniocal" matters. Well, if you get the technique wrong, the whole thing doesn't work.

    I think we're almost ready to re-write, or maybe just to write, a really good training manual/notebook for ministers of all faiths and none.

  7. I love that 'ministers'! I am really getting my head around it. I think it sits very easily.

    What's that line of yours about woven into the tapestry of the life, or whatever it is? There's another one.

  8. It was actually on a blog you directed us to - there'd been an unsatisfactory funeral, and the dead man's friends repaired to the pub and over a few drinks began "to weave his absence into the fabric of things." (May not be word perfect but i'll never find the original tonight!) I liked the emphasis on an important job to do, re-adjusting their world so it could continue without his physical presence.