Friday, 9 July 2010

Funerals and attitudes to mortality

Funerals seem to fit the family; I seem to absorb much of the family's own attitude to their loss, and the character of the person who's died. Without being consciously aware of it, I reject, modify or strengthen what you might call the "tonal" aspects of a ceremony as I'm drafting my part of it. This, of course, is a response to their attitudes towards death and dying (or "it" and "how it happens")and in a broader sense to mortality itself. I wonder if this happens with other ministers?

So if a family, who in their turn are usually consciously or unconsciously reflecting the attitudes of the person who's died, have a stoical and dismissive attitude, the funeral works its way through to being less emotive and dramatic. If they give more emphasis to their grief and their loss then..etc. The hardest ones are where their attitudes to mortality are the least formed and expressed. And sometimes this relates to their having fewer cultural resources (I mean their own education, levels of fluency in speech, awareness of their own feelings - I don't mean whether or not they listen to Radio 3.)

I don't feel it's my job to nudge the stoics towards something more expressive, because I may feel it's more cathartic, more psychically healthy. I know other celebrants and ministers may disagree, but I've worked and thought through this and I'm happy, for the moment, with this position. I guess there is an interesting difference between Jonathan and me on this, and that XPiry and I probably agree more closely. I think we are where we are in our culture, the change will be slow, necessarily, and I want to look more now at where we are with regard to attitudes to mortality. I have been encouraged to continue by some of the throng of people who look in here from time time - thanks, on I go. (And on,. and on, and on, they all cried..)


  1. Hi Gloria,

    I agree that we do, automatically, reflect the families. If they're "no-nonsense" people, we think twice before asking them if they want anyone to express their grief in the form of dance.

    It's one of those tough ones, isn't it? How much do we suggest to families, how much do we (forgive me) "know better"? I have shared the experience of feeling that I want to take the good folks a little deeper into their grief, so that they can start to come out again.

    But how? Sometimes a well chosen reading or a simple phrase can do it. However, if people are being really stoic and holding it together for reasons of their own, then saying something designed to hit a nerve could border on cruelty.

    And do we have the right to tell people what to feel? As you expressed so well in your "honest funeral" post, their feelings are for them to display in whatever way they want.

    Ultimately, we can perhaps do little more than what the family has requested, plus a few "extras". But there are ceremonies when I make a point of saying that it's perfectly okay and natural to be upset, and that this is a time when those who live on should be gentle with themselves.

    Who am I to say these things? Nobody of great significance to the family, but I have the right to care as a fellow human being. Sorry if that sounds pompous, I don't mean it to.

  2. Never pompous, XP. Actually I think you have the right not only as a fellow human being, but as an experienced and sensitive minister, to support families in their grieving in the ways that you know best, so that they can do wehat suits them best, not what they think they "ought" to do. That may include exploring with them ideas and ritual elements they may not have thought of, it may be doing nothing of the kind. This is when we need our emotional radar to be switched on.

    I love the idea of suggesting to the family of, say, a retired senior army officer that they express their grief through a dance...sounds Pythonesque to me!

    Your point about reassuring people that being upset and showing it is natural and OK, is a good one in our culture - so here I am now pretending to know "what's best," I guess - but when I say something like that to a family, I'm simply trying to loosen the formality of the event and the place so they find it easier just to be themselves, whether that be to sob or to look thoughtful...

    I think you and I are fairly clear on the difference between exploring how a family wants to do this, and feeling that we know how they should do it.
    Thanks for the useful comment.

  3. Are celebrants also performing an act of public psychotherapy? Or should they be more "blank" almost like car park stewards?

    At my Dad's Funeral (2004) I found myself (in ways that I still don't fully understand) ENJOYING it.

    How weird.

    It was in the same little church that he was christened in, and he lived his whole life in pretty much the same small place.

    I wrote a piece which I felt I would not be able to read without cracking up. So the vicar read that. I thought that was a useful function alone.

    Dad's friend Michael read an account of their friendship.

    My Mum was very stoic, and said as the coffin arrived at the gate she said "Brave face, best foot forward" and she was the bravest of all us. She really loved him and his oddness.

    My parents were of a different way of thinking from me, and I think my Dear Old Dad, really believed in the church as an embodiment of God.

    He said his prayers walking round the kitchen table at 5 in the morning.

    What I felt as the service progressed, and so many eccentric and beautiful traits were expressed, was that this was a great ending to his love and his life.

    I think Dad and I would, if we had ever spoken of it, disagreed about God.

    I don't think we would have ever ever disagreed that there is a spiritual and mutual connection that we all have access to. That despite differing creeds and customs we are spiritually substantial.

    I laughed a lot on the day of my Dad's funeral because Love Is Life, and it was not Dad that was in the box. It was our memory of a beautiful and eccentric man.

    This was a service with a vicar rather than a celebrant, and the congregation was mainly god fearing and traditional.

    It seemed right for Dad, but it would not be for me. It was perfect for Dad.

    I think we need some relevant and appropriate plughole for our remains to disappear through, and that includes some kind of public appraisal of the meaning and force of that person's existence.

    But as to the actual path of the tears and the laughter - that must surely be the process of the mourners in the end.

    I think we need expedition leaders to help us accept the journey across the river.

  4. Lovely post, Arkayeff.

    I'm glad that you enjoyed your Dad's funeral, and that you felt it was the right ceremony for someone you obviously love dearly. As you say, it may not be the right type of ceremony for you, but it was the right one for your Dad, and that's what you were putting together.

    In answer to your question, should we be car park stewars or psychotherapists? That's a tough one. And I fear that the answer may be "it depends", on the family, the nature of the death, the way in which the family are grieving, etc.

    We are (and I don't like this word, but I think it's the right one), "facilitators". We help the ceremony itself go smoothly (curtains, cues and music), and, when we get it right, we also help people to grieve in a way that stretches them a little, without taking them too far away from comfort.

    I hope that this makes sense - my worry is it looks like I've swallowed a self-help book!

  5. At last (sorry) I return to your post, Ark. Big big thanks - it is so eminently sane and profound. I would instance: your conclusion, because it shows just the right balance about the role of a minister, its powers and limitations; your honesty about enjoying your Dad's funeral - great, why not, you were responding, I guess, to the rightness of it for him; your profound understanding that the energy that a life creates for us is not left in the box (what Jonathan calls "the difference between him and it") and the fact that the job of a funeral is to help people through that transition; that a spiritual and mutual connection needn't have much to do with beliefs different or similar; you spot the useful function provided by the vicar - what XP calls the "gob on a stick" function (she may be on the rough-but-honest side of direct, sometimes, and very useful too); XP picks up the point about psychotherapist vs steward and helps us to see that it is on a sliding scale depending on the family - though I think that any overt psychotherapism may be best avoided, it's an implicit function of a good funeral not the overt mission of the minister, for me anyway. And you draw from XP a model point about stretching people's grief a little to help them express it, without devastating them.

    I hestitate to say this because it sounds superior, but I think your post shows a better intuitive understanding of the role of a minister and the function of a funeral than some of us lot (BHA gobs, that is.) I think we (BHAers) don't talk a lot about these profound aspects of what we do, why, what we believe, what happens to mourners etc., we tend to be a bit procedural - better ceremonies, music, managing a crem, etc. Important superstructure, but what about the foundations?
    Thanks again.