Monday, 4 October 2010

A "Hippy" Funeral

I'd like to interrupt the mindfulness/mortality stuff I'm trying to develop here, just to comment on a recent funeral, because it seemed to me to relate to some of the areas of belief and attitudes towards death that people have been discussing.

Because at one crem I work in, there is a 15 or 30 minute break between funerals, however busy they are - a policy I consider humane and helpful - this funeral was able to start ten minutes early, and it overshot its time allocation, narrowly avoiding impacting on the start of the next one. I mention these mundane matters because they matter. It's no good banging on about the rigidity of crems and the awfulness of trad ritual, and then deciding the way round it is to take time away from others - that's just selfish. The FD should have booked a double time allocation, and the mourners should have left when they saw the next family arriving. But no major harm done, happily.

The reason it overshot was because of the variety and unpredictability of input, and the fact that many of them didn't want to leave at the end. Many of the mourners, like the dead person, were involved in communal living, and in particular with a community in India. They were not orthodox Hindus (if one can be such), they were Brits and Americans who had, I guess, taken the road east in the 60s and 70s, and spent much time at the end that road. It was a religious funeral, in a broad sense - much talk of the spirit moving on, the soul being free. There were elements of nature worship in it, an identity with natural forces and a view that the holy is all around us. Much about fire and the sun. Some laughter, some tears.

There was a big board with photos and messages stuck on it, heaps of flowers all over the coffin (wicker or cane.) The minister was simply "one of them" with some sort of spiritual leadership role. There were loads of messages from friends far and wide. People spoke unusually frankly ("this wasn't a sexual relationship, but...")

I'm fine with a sense of wonder at the workings of the universe and, in good moments, a sense of identity with it, soI have a degree of spirituality, if you like. (The word needs re-defining.) But without the literal idea of spirits, because as it happens, I don't believe in another life after this one. Nevertheless, there was much in this ceremony for a NoGoder to value and enjoy.

They joined in singing little poems/songs which obviously they had sung in their community/ies, or had rehearsed. They sang well (c.f. the pain of listening to a handful of elderly people doing their best with "Abide With Me" and a tone-deaf vicar, or the horror of listening yet again to "I Did It My Way.") There was laughter as well as tears. A sibling spoke, clearly a much more conventional person, who had drifted apart from and then re-entered the life of the dead person. The words sounded simple and truthful and direct. There was some dancing, including to a famous soul music track as well as to vaguely indian-sounding chants and songs. People mostly wore bright clothes. At the end, they stood around chatting, listening to another track, some standing with their arms held up in the air.

How do I know? because I was watching and listening, unobtrusively I hope, quite fascinated whilst also looking with increasing anxiety at my watch. I was next "on."

They were what people dismissively call "hippies," I suppose. These people didn't seem to me to be weekend or part-time hippies. I'd guess they lived by a set of spiritual beliefs, which the funeral embodied, and they had stayed with the so-called "counter-culture," living their lives and following their beliefs. Some might dismiss them as pretentious, i.e. pretending to something which is not really theirs - they were not born into the culture they are apeing, they just adapt elements of it because it different and exotic, they are show-offs, etc. Maybe that's just prejudice, maybe nervous inhibition, or even submerged envy.

Whatever you think of their beliefs, they sure do know how do a funeral!

But why in a crem? Would have been much better in a different building, or under the wide sky. The only bit that jarred for me, in a way it doesn't with more restrained, "traditional" funerals, was the crem itself. They certainly inhabited it, in a way most more conventional funerals don't, but it was still the local crem.

Well, as Dave Allen used to say, "may your gods go with you." Whatever they are, even if your gods are NoGod, I hope they give you such a free-flowing, honest, participative funeral.


  1. I'd like a funeral that is colourful and full of life.

    I'd like the people there to laugh as well as cry if they want to.

    I'd like there to be a party that I would wish I had been at - if you see what I mean.

  2. Thanks Arkers, I indeed see what you mean. A freind of my brothers knew he was for the big drop, so he invited his necessary people to a final party, at which he would say goodbye. Sorry to say, the Grim R doesn't look at the calendar and he keeled over before the date, which was a release in one sense but also a pity. Except I wonder what such a party (growing more common, I believe) would actually be like. You'd have to choose your music with care...and at what stage would you actually say, "now there's something I need to say to you all..."

    In fact, it is arguably more generous-spirited and realistic to let the partying commence after you've gone. Fewer inhibitions and anxieties, a chance to weep, caper and yell, a life-affirming event giving two fingers to the GR and shaking off his chill.

    Don't know. Must learn from other people's experience in this.

  3. Yes, puzzling. Since they'd been so careful about all the other elements, I'm tempted to suggest carelessness - they didn't think it through. Perhaps it has something to do with the infrequency with which people attend funerals and aren't reflective when they do, so funeral = crem. 'Gosh, could we have had it somewhere else? We never thought of that.' I would imagine that most people suppose that, just as they believe you have to have an 'official' person to conduct a funeral, you have to have a funeral in an official building. I don't know. But I do know that even a little knowledge about this business of funerals opens a huge knowledge gap with everyone else. The ignorance is astounding.

    Perhaps it all goes to show how important it is for us to get the message out there that you can do what you want where you want and take as long as it takes?

  4. Seems the ideal bunch of people for a modern, British outdoor funeral pyre.

  5. Absolutely right, Rupert,especially since fire and the sun seemed to be part of their spiritual and ritualistic centre (guess it would be if they're very plugged into Hinduism.)