Sunday, 17 October 2010

Funerals: form and essence, convention and truth

On Charles' blog recently (Good Funeral Guide 11 October, "Parish Notices") , Jonathan's comment emphasising essense rather than trappings is spot on, as usual. I'm a little more puzzled about his idea that the essence, the spirit of a funeral is vulnerable to "absorption" by convention and tradition. I can see that an unthinkingly conventional or traditional exterior can suck the life out of the occasion, and leave the mourners unchanged by it.

But a convention is a way of doing something (wearing clothes, saying grace or not saying grace, not breaking wind in front of people unless you know them really well) that is widely accepted, or at least accepted by its audience. So doesn't each funeral need to find its own set of conventions, some of which might be new-minted (difficult....), some well-known, and some might be unusual but derived from something recognisable. If a funeral were to be totally unconventional, would the mourners recognise it as a funeral? Would this matter? Am I asking an irritating number of questions? (Yes. And by the way, breaking wind, at least audibly, is pretty generally seen as not a useful conventional element at funerals. To date.)

It's now a well-worn convention to choose pieces of music that relate to the life of the dead person. That would have been an outrageous innovation a few decades ago. Either way, conventional or not, it still works for a lot of people. The music is often the only thing that has clarified out of the emotional tumult by the time I call on people to discuss the funeral.

What is so wrong with tradition, provided it is still alive, as it were, if still helps those involved to create meanings around the end of a life? Cultures make ceremonies traditional because they work, and adapt them as/when they don't, vide the Cenotaph on 11:11 - seems to work for a lot of people, no? Some of us are reacting against traditional funerals because we feel they are no longer speaking to us, they are a short-cut. So we are trying to develop new conventions. They may become elements of a tradition, over time.

In any case, a funeral can surely be traditional in form but express the right things for the dead person and those close to her. Diana's funeral (you remember, the Princess one) was in many ways traditional, and in other ways not - e.g. her brother attacked the Royal Family, and Sir Elton John sung a song. It seemed to many people, I seem to remember, about right. (Views on the aforementioned song vary widely...)

If there is nothing new under the sun, then a unique funeral is still likely to consist of doings and words and actions that have been used before, and as soon as that happens, a convention is developing. Someone, somewhere, thought up "to celebrate a life" and a new convention was born. For some, it's now a cliche, a conventional element that is used unthinkingly, a moribund traditional element.

At a recent funeral, I was asked (well, told, really) to be sure to use exactly that formula,"celebrate her life" at least twice. For those people, it seems to mean something important. I used it, and sought to unpack it somewhat. Seemed to go alright.

Very interesting, this business of conventions and innovations. A brilliant writer and practitioner on theatrical improvisation, Keith Johnstone, in his 1981 book "Impro," pointed out that you can instantly tell "avant garde" drama because all round the world, it looks the same..! In those days, it meant taking all/most of your clothes off, maybe painting yourself white, and crawling over other actors and/or the audience... His message was that true originality isn't a matter of trying to invent new outwards, it comes from letting the innards, the works, dictate the casings, letting the essence help you find the outward form - which might be unexcitingly non-avant garde, but true, in a way an audience will instantly recognise.

Originality isn't a matter of straining for unconventional forms, it's a much more valuable exploration. Early Beethoven sounds like Haydn, I believe, but nothing else in the world sounds like Beethoven's late quartets. He couldn't, I guess, have jumped right in and said "to hell with Haydn, let's invent a different kind of quartet." The Beatles used to cover other rockers' songs very well - but only they could have made "Drive My Car," or "Strawberry Fields."

OK, ok, I know, off the point somewhat. Summary: I'm content to use traditional elements of funeral ritual and ceremony as long as they are true to what needs to be said and done, and what is true, as I've said before (wake up at the back) is a very long way from being just my decision.

So maybe I'm just a pretty unreliable revolutionary.


  1. Celebrants have to meet people where they are and take them where they want to go. Brits, however iconoclastic, like to incorporate a trapping or two from the past -- we just don't do clean breaks over here. Good thing, bad thing? I really couldn't value-judge. You'd have thought that Malcolm Mclaren would definitely have reinvented the funeral when he planned his own. Yet it was remarkably mainstream - a horse-drawn hearse, three big black lims, some eyebrow-raising music...

    It can be a mistake to regard conventions as constraints. After all, Alexander Pope made a good career out of heroic couplets.

    But we remember too that churches have evolved liturgies because they do the job very well, according to belief, though they bash out the same stuff every time. It's not that nobody minds that, it's that they positively want it.

    No need to get too hung up on all this, I think. Funerals are bound to be funereal.

    Having said which, Carl Marlow told me of a funeral he did for a man who told him to take him to the crem wrapped in his duvet. Carl said it didn't look good, him on the catafalque with his feet sticking out. That may not have been recognisable as a funeral (though the venue might have been a giveaway).

  2. Thanks Charles. As well-balanced as ever (or are you devoted to excess and take that as an insult..?)Interesting about Malcolm McL.

    I wonder if it's possible to avoid entirely thinking of one's own funeral in terms of what one would like to see - when ,er, one won't, that's for sure. As opposed to whatever would suit the nearest and dearest - which might be quite different. "I'd like X but partner would hate it" might be quite a tricky one.

    I've thought about that in terms of leaving the old corpus to science - I think some I know dearly well wouldn't like that at all, and I certainly wouldn't feel strongly enough about it to hurt them. Maybe if the desire for a principled action comes from a strong enough centre, it carries the day over the wishes of the next-of. And anyway, my example isn't about funerals themselves.

    Bare feet on the catafalque is a ritual element too far for me, though who knows? Perhaps duvets and bare feet will become de rigeur mortis (sorry..) over the next few cash-strapped cut-up years.

  3. I think families have their own "tribal" traditions. It seems to me that in funerals one wants to have one's own tribal traditions accepted and acknowledged.

    Sometimes these will fit with society's traditions and sometimes they don't.

    I suppose you don't want to impose society on a tribe, nor a tribe on society.

    I think I would opt for jestor's shoes complete with bells.

  4. Jester's shoes and bells it shall be, Arkers, thanks for this interesting thought. Maybe some families have tribal traditions (e.g. military families)but maybe others have much less sense of trad and continuity if they, or some of them, have moved away from an established religion. I guess you can invent, or develop, a new ritual, but you can't, of course, invent a new tradition. Time does that. After all, "traditional" jazz was the new hot sound in 1923.

    Maybe one trad is evolving - the natural-world-worshipping, vaguely pantheistic pagan sort of "hippy" funeral. I posted about a full-on version thereof recently, but little elements of it creep in to otherwise conventional funerals - e.g. the growing popularity of poems that say a version of "she's not gone, she's all around us in the sunset and the..." fill in whichever bit of the natural world you particularly respond to.

    People seem to find this comforting, though whether they feel it only in a metaphorical sense (i.e. we'll think of her when...) or in a literal sense (i.e. her spirit is literally all around us*) is less clear.

    *Perhaps easier to feel on the seashore than on the Northern line in the rush-hour, of course...

  5. Great post, as ever, Gloria.

    The line which struck a particular chord with me, was "would the mourners recognise it as a funeral? Would this matter?".

    I think this is a key point in what we do. We may be doing an "alternative" ceremony, or ignoring many of the conventions of a ceremony, but I would worry if lots of people came out of one of my ceremonies feeling as though they hadn't said goodbye, at least in some way.

    Interesting stuff. Cheers

  6. Goodbye covers it, doesn't it XP? The only psychological danger seems to me avoiding "goodbye." The rest is open to cultural/spiritual negotiation and development.