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.


  1. Great post, Gloria. I like the way that you think and the way that you express those thoughts.

    I too am nervous of "new funerals". Yes, people should have choice. They should have the funeral that is meaningful to them, whether it is a memorial service as they don't want the local crem's conveyor belt, or a ritual that involves close involvement with the body.

    But we must be careful not to ignore the comfort that people gain from the familiar. I've been asked to say "ashes to ashes" at a burial, and just "take out the religious bits" because the well known words felt right and proper to that particular family.

    If people feel that a trad funeral with an FD dressed in full Edwardian will give them their necessary comfort, than so be it.

    And as for the level of sobbing - I wonder how much of this is cultural as it is psychological? I did a ceremony for an English man with a Mediterranean parter. Come the day, the partner was weeping, requiring a seat and water, unable to talk to anyone, expressing grief loudly and with passion. The deceased's father was, I'm sure, no less affected by the death (if not more so - we don't expect to outlive our children), but he was reserved, quiet, politely chatting to those who had come along, the very model of "Stiff Upper Lip".

    I don't know which grief is "healthier", but I would guess that trying to force each to behave like the other would have been a very unhealthy thing to do.

    Sorry, I've rambled again - but you have given us much to think about. Cheers.

  2. Thanks, XP, most encouraging. Your example exactly sums up why we need to work with those differences. I've done "ashes to ashes" too, hard, simple words that seemed very fitting. We're all trying to find our way in this, and our antennae need to be twitching all the time, don't they?