Sunday, 2 October 2011

Words, words, words, words, words

Quite so, but before we get to this point, words are where we live. OK, we also live in silences, and in images - in all our sensory perceptions. But words make things happen, they delineate our self-awareness, divide us from each other and bring us together. Thus much seems to be received wisdom. With nothing but a few words - random sound symbols hanging in the air - I can fill a room with seething hatred, or empty it, or fill it with laughter. We hear a lot about the power of body language, subtle physical signals, facial expressions, even smells, as powerful communicators. No doubt. But what started World War 2 was an ultimatum, a set of words. What can change a life are few simple words - a proposal of marriage, say, or the words "You're fired!"

For a funeral celebrant (and no doubt it's true of funeral directors, bereavement counsellors, medical staff, hospice nurses) there seem to me to be a few key words that swirl around, much used, sometimes little examined, or sometimes fussed and worried over. Some of them are about belief, some are more specific but loaded with assumptiuons, sometimes hidden ones. I'd like to haul a few of these words out from time to time, make them stand under as clear a light as I can find, and take a look at them.

Today I'll try "non-religious," as in "they want a non-religious funeral for him," or "he was non-religious."

One of those apparently useful terms that actually can destroy potential meanings.

It may simply mean they want a funeral for an atheist. OK, so we won't have anything in it about a supposed after-life, we won't have prayers or hymns, if we have a quiet time for reflections and memories I won't invite prayers, and we'll watch out for phrases such as "passed on," or "passed away." He didn't believe there is anywhere to pass to, and his family, looking to follow his beliefs, don't want any such assumptions in what is said. There may be problems for some of those close to him, because they are perhaps not so sure about there being nothing but this life. So there may be family tensions about it, but the central meaning is clear enough.

But it's de-energising to define a project by what it's not, and the phrase tends to imply a default mode, a semi-hidden set of assumptions based on other similar funerals: come in to music, introduction from celebrant, tribute/euology by celebrant and/or family member/friend, quiet time with music, committal, concluding words and announcements, exeunt to final piece of music. We have to tease this out a bit, explore it, open it out, even if we settle back on it finally. (It still seems to suit a lot of families.)

From "the family" (shorthand for the people the celebrant meets, those arranging the funeral and calling the shots) we need to find out how they feel about the funeral, and help them think about what they want to happen. We should somehow have this done before we start laying about us with definitions such as "non-religious," which defines little, except for the absence of a priest/rabbi/minister/vicar/mullah or similar. It's actually more honest when some families simply say to the FD "We don't want the vicar." "Fine," says the FD, "I'll give Gloria a ring and see if she's free."

But in any case, what does it really mean to say "we want a religious funeral?" Celebrants can include elements of religious ritual, some lead prayers and psalms, some lead hymn singing. Some vicars will, on request, hardly mention God at all, it seems.

Maybe ideally, we should start any discussion with the nature of the funeral: how the family feels about it, what they want it to do for them, what the dead person wanted to happen (if anyone knows anything of this,) where it is to be held, what is to happen in it, what is to be done and said and by whom.

After a while, the discussion could then turn more fruitfully to who, if anyone, would be best suited to what the family wants. As things stand, this discussion usually happens - or doesn't happen - with the funeral director. But the person helping with the actual ceremony, or leading it, might be a celebrant, might be a vicar, a rabbi or a boozing companion of the dead person. Might be the dead person's nephew or neice. There might be hymns and references to a God, or a spirit world, or not. Might be all sorts of possibilities than just tend to slide away under your hand when you say:

"A non-religious funeral, please."

"Right. I'll get Gloria, see if she's free Tuesday week 13:00, they've got a slot at the crem."

Altogether too many damned slots in this business, and not yet enough thinking and feeling.

The words "non-religious" look meaningful; they really aren't. Here's a word that might be more useful: "secular."

It means "not religious, sacred or spiritual" - back to square one, but it also means "not subject to or bound by religious rule." (Thanks to the Concise Oxford.) I think that second definition derives from the Christian church, but it's quite useful in our context, because it doesn't define the belief content of the ceremony. It doesn't close down or over-simplify discussion. It simply says to me that "we want a funeral that doesn't follow the forms and requirements likely to be followed by an ordained minister or religion."

It probably means: we don't want the vicar, we want a secular celebrant. Outside of that, anything goes, as far as beliefs are concerned. We've closed nothing down.

Upcoming here sometime soon: "spiritual." That really will be a head-banger.


  1. Fine matter for first thing in the day. My brow is knotted, by brain panting. There's nothing quite like hunting for a mot juste to bring one to a bulging-eyed standstill.

    Celebrants tend to categorise funerals by faith content. I wonder if relicts do. Is this uppermost in their mind? Are existential matters of such importance to most people? I don't think so; most people, in spirit of equable fatalism, take what comes. I have a feeling that what weighs most with them is control. Some are perfectly happy, relieved, even, to hand over to a faith rep who'll take care of it for them, give them what they need. Others feel that to do that would be to be disempowered. They want to shape the funeral in the image of the person who died and in the image of themselves, the way they do things. Uppermost in their mind is not having the whole thing taken away from them. There is a significant difference between the assumed status of a priest and that of a celebrant. Priests do what they do; celebrants do what they're told.

    The process begins with a negative. First, get rid of the bossy guy. Now we can do as we please.

    What do you term that? A self-governing funeral?

  2. Golden words Charles, especially after your usual ritual disclaimer of "goodness this stuff is difficult and my brain hurts and..." then bang, you fix the whole thing beautifully.

    I'm increasingly feeling that categorising a funeral by an assumed faith content is for many families a waste of time. And spot on, maybe FDs should say "how much control do you wish to exert? X is an RC priest, he will have little or no personal stuff; Y is CofE, so expect prayers and hymns but some room for what you want to say about the old man; Gloria, and especially her pal, is a bit of a faith tart and will do whatever you want; Z is a firm humanist, and will expect you to want a more less atheistical ceremony," etc. - or more sophisticated words to that effect.

    Two bits of pokerwork for the mantelpiece: "Priests do what they do; celebrants do what they're told." (after they have helped the family to decide what it is they are to be told, perhaps.) and "A self-governing funeral." Excellent.

    Many thanks.

  3. Quite so, GM. This is what differentiates humanist (I wish they'd just front up and say atheist) celebrants from the rest of us. To them a funeral is an expression of faith. I don't accept that atheism is a way of thinking, not a belief system: I see colours nailed to masts. But there are thousands of people who do not regard a funeral primarily as an expression of belief, and the process of articulating their needs and wishes is consequently more complex. Celebrants who do this work are not aptly named; they are not merely a like-for-like alternative to faith-based celebrants. Goodness knows what they should call themselves. Funeral facilitators? Hardly trips off the tongue. More matter for another blog post, GM? Over to you.

    Flattering to know that my words are now filling your front room with smoke as the letters are pokered in. What a very quaint hobby, GM. It makes you about 108. I hope you've polished your horse brasses?

  4. H'm, big and interesting question Charles. Some/?most humanists seem to behave as though atheism is a belief system. Signs of this are when they worry about having to say things they don't literally and entirely believe. As if their atheism might be polluted by irrational belief if they sing a couple of verses of "The Day Thou Gavest" - and do they never sing carols? Well, actually some of them don't, refuse to use the term "Christmas," etc. They seem to want to ignore or eradicate that part of our cultural heritage which has echoes and shadows of Christianity about it. I wonder if devut atheists listen to the Messiah,or admire Durham Cathedral? Does it all seem superstitious nonsense beause they don't share the belief base of such works?

    In ordinary lifes, we all have to say things we're not sure about, uncertainties, half-known things. We create a sense of meaning out of the world we perceive by throwing conceptual nets over our perceptions. Some nets are labelled atheist, some, etc. Atheists tend to think reason is an absolute. Reason is a fine thing - anaesthetics? contraception? etc - but it is of little use in a supernova. Without our little nets, all of us would be scared silly, beyond reason - even atheists. Surely reason, as well as intuition and faith, has its limits?

    Other humanists, and to be honest I'm usually happier in their company, have a more relative and flexible approach to questions of belief. And they are not all atheists, some would probably say they were agnostic. Which gets them accused by the atheists of sitting on the fence.

    Ho hum. The music goes round and round, and comes out here. Where? Same place, labelled "only one true faith," whether it's derived from reason or tradition.

    109, cheeky boy.

  5. Quite so. Very important not to go along with and utter things we don't believe and which would create actual harm, like voicing an incitement to garotte lesbians. But a wee prayer here or a hymn there -- and it's not as if anybody can possibly suss us in that situation and say Hey, you don't believe a word of that, do you? They don't know. We are not vitiated, God is not mocked, the Earth turns and all is well. Overrated stuff, amour propre -- unlike clean doilies.

  6. Clean doilies.....? One lump or two, vicar?