Sunday, 9 January 2011

Who Is My Funeral For?

In my last post, Ms Refusenik comments:

"Is it just petty of me to want to design my green funeral as if I were coming to it? I mean I don't care if other people don't want want to sit through Neil Young's long and passionate "Will to Love." It was a theme song of mine for years."

She storms on with some great, high-energy stuff. I'm going to stay, in my prosaic way, with her opening question, and in that irritatingly liberal way, I'll start my answer with a question: "Who is my funeral for?" because to answer that question is to answer hers too, it seems to me. And there isn't one answer for all.

I guess in belief systems around the world, the answer used to be, and sometimes still is, "my funeral is for me." That's because death rites had to be performed right, or the soul would not get off on its journey, or would not have what it needed for that journey - be that an entire terracotta army, or just a few cooking pots, or pennies on the eyes to pay Charon, the boatman who rowed you over the River Styx to Hades. Less dramatically, they simply had to be performed right to fit the religion of the dead person, so Christians needed to be buried in a churchyard, and if (soldiers) they couldn't, then you sanctified the ground around them with a rudimentary cross, and the appropriate scriptural words.

But with all due respect to the mighty Neil Young, (or Mozart, or Miles, or The Clash, whoever you want ringing out over your shroud/coffin) I don't think not playing the right music will imperil anyone's soul-journey to the after-life. Though many who believe in an after-life would feel that the right prayers need to be said to help the soul depart.

Such considerations don't apply in my own case, because it seems highly unlikely to me that I've got a soul bound for another place, in any literal or real sense. That being the case, I shan't be looking on, or offended if the "right" things don't happen. My own feeling is that the funeral will not be for me. There will be no me. Some of the funeral may be about me as I was, but my funeral will be for those who were close to me.

It's so that an extraordinary psychic change can happen in those present - the pain of releasing a body into the ground or the fire allows the true meaning of a life to come through for those present, not necessarily on the spot, but certainly afterwards. Our lives are em-bodied. We have to free their meaning from the awful constrictions and claustrophobia of grief by saying farewell to that body - properly.

It hurts, whether you're listening to Neil Young or The Sex Pistols, it hurts no matter how much you celebrate the life that was lived. It hurts more if something awful has happened, if the person was young, etc. But even for an 87-year old who keels over quickly and doesn't suffer, if she mattered to you, you feel the sharpness of grief. Then you can take forward what the life means to you. Least, that how it seems to me.

If I had The Sex Pistols played at my funeral, just for the sake of a gesture, The Long-Suffering One would be upset. They aren't from the era of our youth, they have no resonance for us, they were culturally interesting maybe but neither of us listen to them with any pleasure. Or to choose something more likely, if I thought it would be amusing, and arranged for "Always Look On The Bright Side of Life" from "The Life of Brian," I don't think my family would be amused. Or comforted, or helped. Some might, not mine - even though I hugely enjoy the movie. (Of course it's not blasphemous, does anyone still think so?)

If Ms Refusenik has her Neil Young, what will it do for those there? Well, if it was a theme of hers for years, surely at least some of those attending would recognise that, smile, sob, mutter "that's so her, and at full volume too. Rock out, kid" or whatever. And seems to me it's the same with all elements of a funeral. Look for the resonance, the association, the words that enable the grief to flower and the funereal cramps eventually to subside.

It would be odd, at best, to have my funeral according to some plan of mine, that meant nothing to those who were there, even if it would have meant something to the me who isn't any more.

No, it's not petty to plan it as though you were there, Ms R. - maybe that will ensure it means something to those who will be there? And may it be a long, enlightened and happy time off.


  1. It's my funeral and I'll cry if I want to...
    Tricky one that. Like almost everything to do with dying/death/funerals/bereavement there is no right answer. On the one hand it IS your funeral so why not have what you want, especially if it reminds people of you in a very real way? On the other (and I think perhaps more sympathetic) side, you won't be there – it will just be those trying to come to terms with your loss and hoping there will be some comfort on offer to help them through the final farewell.
    And Life of Brian is a very funny film (not blasphemous) but if one more family requests 'Bright Side of Life'...

  2. Ah, very (and characteristically) wise, my dear old GM. Yes, thank you, you have crystallised it for me: today's non-religious dead people do not need funerals in the old-fashioned sense. Actually, Protestants haven't needed funerals ever since, er, Luther, God being presumed already to have made his own evaluation, and being uninfluenceable by prayers, intercession or even cheering from the touchline.

    And while it's slightly bonkers to have the living march to the beat of the dead, yet the dead, if they are thoughtful, can leave all manner of good ideas behind. Not a blueprint, though. Just a sketch -- to which the living can add all manner of finishing touches (and, if they feel inclined, re-work bits).

    Gosh, your correspondent Ms Refusenik is a force of nature!

  3. Thanks CB and Charles; that's a crucial difference, I think - notes, suggestions, possible preferences, all good. Saves people feeling they don't know what to do for the best. Blueprints I like less the more extreme and definite they are - see the discussion around the Goof Funeral Guide blog about the "no funeral" trend in the USA. What does the "no funeral" instruction do to the people who really need to say goodbye? Doesn't have to be a crem or graveside funeral, but let them have some gathering, some talk, some music, some - meaning to take away.

  4. O God, sorry Charles, that should of course read "The GOOD Funeral Guide." Though we could, I fear, write a comprehensive funeral guide for goofs...