Sunday, 21 April 2013

What is a Funeral For?

Any crematorium worker/chapel attendant will tell you that there are all sorts of funerals these days, all shades of belief and unbelief and not-sureness, all manner of ritual and ceremony, all sorts of behaviour from respectful quiet through laughing and chattering to fist fights.

And we all know that a body has to go somewhere, when a life has left it....






(I mean, what use are they? They are bloody expensive!)

In human societies around the world, people need rites by which to say goodbye to a life and to part company with the body that was that life. In our culture, there has never been so much choice available as to how we do this.

Because I'm a funeral celebrant, it seems right to keep asking myself such questions. What difference does a funeral ceremony make? What else are we doing, other than putting a body somewhere it can, er, "rejoin the natural elements from which we all come." I'm going to risk a few over-simplified and blunt suggestions in answer to the question.

1. It marks a stage in our grieving. I've learned to distrust all generalisations about grief, except that each of us does it in her own way, each of us goes through it. A funeral can and should help  people along this journey.

2. It brings people together who have one thing in common, even if nothing else: the life that has recently ended. Mutual support.

3. It's public, usually, to some degree at least, so the gathering marks it as a death that has happened, a life that is emphasised and remembered, a spirit that is freed - perhaps.

4a). Aha! Now we're getting to it. Spirits. Religion/not religion appears. But it's a greatly exaggerated non-problem, if a funeral really does its job. You may believe that the funeral is to mark the release of a soul from a body, to help the soul on its journey to an after-life, in which case it really needs to be done, or else. (see "Antigone.")

4b). Or you don't believe a word of it, or you are a perhapsist. No problem, as people irritatingly say at every turn these days. But really, it shouldn't be a problem. If a funeral clarifies and illuminates the meaning of someone's life, if it makes plain the way we carry away with us the influence of the dead person, the bit of us that came from our shared lives, then that too emphasises what doesn't stay in the box when we leave. The soul doesn't stay in the box, nor does the meaning and effect of someone's life. (For better and/or for worse, that goes on rippling.....) Either or both these things are true.

5. A funeral is a big and difficult transition. You've seen John Doe's life in terms of his body, walking, talking, doing stuff with you, stuff that even at a distance, makes a difference to you. Then this impossible thing happens: the body is no longer doing the stuff that you called John Doe. But it still is John, the beloved, the old bastard, the laughalot, the champ, the.... Oh. No, it's not. John's in heaven, or in my memory, or in the way I laugh or talk too much when I'm nervous, or can bowl a leg-spinner. He's still with me, but he's not. And in that box, there's that body that was John - but it's just a thing, now. No, not "just." You need a chance to make that huge adjustment, so that John, in whatever way you like or don't like, stays with you, and "the body of John Doe we now commit to..." etc. You can walk away from the body and hold on to the meaning, to you, of the life

6. This change hurts, takes time, needs to be gone through, in whatever way your culture supports, in wherever these things are done. With a stiff upper lip, in a cacophony of wailing and howling from the professional mourners in some countries, in the awful silence that follows a battle, in secret, in St Paul's Cathedral. I was told the story of the mother in front of her daughter's open casket who, when the undertaker tried to console her that "it" wasn't really her daughter, slapped him till his teeth rattled and said "I'll decide when I stop calling this my daughter." The mother was still in transition, from a living daughter to a body and a set of meanings she could, somehow, manage to live with."She" wasn't "it," not yet. 

7. A person becomes a body not when the pulse stops, but when those who love her are ready to see the difference between a body and what they still have, what they can live on with. Disrupt that, with your breezy 20 minutes in a crematorium gliding over the surface of things, disrupt that, and you make it harder for them to find what they can live on with. Get it badly wrong, and you may make it harder for them, for the rest of their lives. That's why a funeral ceremony matters, that's why we have to get it as right as possible. There's a lot more to grieving than a funeral, of course, but a funeral is a pivot. That's why we feel better when it's over.

8. A funeral ceremony is to express love. If it doesn't, it's like a gin and tonic with no gin,  no lemon, no ice and f*all tonic either. It may be to express the love of God, it is certainly to show the love we have for each other, behind the stiff upper lip, behind the rain that's pissing down on the pagan ritual, behind the jazz band or the syrupy ballad or the lovely choir, behind the nervous giggles afterwards, underneath the undertaker's funny little top hat, the bishop's bonnet, Aunty Elsie's frankly dreadful hat. 

"Now abideth faith, hope, charity; these three. And the greatest of these is charity."

Charity in the ancient meaning of "unselfish and unconditional love for people" (my translation, not copyright...) 

A funeral needs to be a charity-filled transition, to help everyone there to grieve, so they can leave a body behind and take away with them the meaning of a life.


  1. Beautifully expressed, thoughtfully presented and a great platform for discussion. The eternal question of who is the funeral for continues to challenge us all. It is good to re-think this on a regular basis. I particularly like your transitional paragraph because we as celebrants often have only thirty minutes to deliver a ritual which helps the grieving to turn that corner. It would be foolhardy and arrogant to think we do that, but I do think the family meetings prior to the ceremony and the discussions that flow are the first faltering steps towards acknowledgement.

    There is a greater transitional difficulty with sudden deaths than there is with a progressive and expected death of course. In the case of sudden or tragic deaths it seems to be a much longer and more complex process to acknowledge the transition I feel. Not sure how helpful the funeral is when there is still disbelief and deep shock present.

    Always a great subject - thank you

  2. Thank you Anon, it's so rewarding to get a thoughtful and helpful comment such as yours.

    Your point about sudden and tragic deaths seems spot on, to me. Maybe it raises questions around how long should, ideally, the gap be between death and funeral. Maybe, if everyone's numbed and reeling, we should either have the funeral a.s.a.p. (increasingly difficult in some parts of the country) and in a sense, get it out of the way, acknowledging that the ceremony itself can't do a lot for those most affected. Or - after a longer wait, during which more adjusting can be done, and the funeral transition stands more chance of meaning something. Perhaps that's the value of early funeral plus later memorial ceremony?

    I guess this issue would be different for each family. In our funereally diverse culture, we, increasingly, make it up as we go, which is - difficult. Are we paying a price for our freedom from religious orthodoxy, be it Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or any faith that has what you might call a programmed approach to mourning, time-scales and funerals?

    Well, we ask on, we keep thinking, and hope that our answers are the best we can do and the best that can be done. As you can see, your comment has helped me think on.

  3. Hmm - interesting and provocative post - thank you! I agree with Anon - as a celebrant as I read your post I found myself thinking the ceremony, the funeral, is the climax of a few days/weeks of preparation and interactions between the body and the family
    (hopefully), between the family and their funeral director, and between the family and me. All those encounters are opportunities for all sorts of emotions - not just unconditional love - sometimes there's unconditional guilt and hate and unforgiveness and rage... aimed at themselves, at the dead one, or the cause of their death, or the life that went before it.

    That sense of opportunities forever vanished, stolen, lost can be overwhelming. The celebrant's skills in laying bear those feelings and then gathering them all up into an acceptably portable piece of baggage for the funeral is paramount. How the families choose to carry/unpack/discard them afterwards is another ritual altogether.
    This is to do with the transition, of which the funeral is a part, a threshold, a doorway to pass through. The ceremony is a prism through which attendees (participants? observers?) can look and see glints of the life that has been, depending on their spirituality -perhaps they also see echoes of things past and hopes of things to come. It's a time and place to acknowledge mortality. Where else do you get to sit in a room with a dead body?

    Maybe the indoors thing is too much of a construct, maybe we all long to be outside and part of the whole realm of nature? the box, the hearse, the crem, the furnace, the grave - all trapping what remains into a specific time and place... Like our grief.... safely boxed up inside.... somewhere.....

    On a purely practical note – the funeral has to happen to dispose of the dead body. Sad the day will be when society ignores this transition...and maybe it is happening already… how long can the traditionalists hang on to the expensive taboo of death? How long before the modernists just see it as ‘disposal’ pure and simple.
    Pure and simple? If only…..

  4. I'm sure you're right, Obil, pure and simple it never is. Interested in the outdoor point - maybe the illusion of boxing "it" all up and leaving it somewhere is part of what we (usually) need to do? But if we box it up too much, important things aren't able to happen.

    Personally, the idea of "disposal" as the only function necessary when someone dies I find chilling. I secretly rather admire those people who, when the dead person has said "don't bother with a funeral," ignore his wishes because they need a ceremony for themselves. I guess in one sense they shouldn't, but I can really see their point.

    I like the idea of a funeral as allowing for echoes to resonate. I respect the idea that a positive function of a funeral is to help us acknowledge our own mortality. AndI think you are spot on about the range of emotions to be found during this period of transition how quickly they change! - certainly not just love; but my bottom line is that celebrants of whatever sort need to be able to find the charitable love that works on and with a stranger.

    Many thanks for your thoughts, so helpful. On we go, working out how and why we do this strange thing we do, so we can do it better and perhaps even be better ourselves?

  5. We are on a journey aren't we? A view of life that assumes an afterlife of some sort, means that death is a departure that requires some structure and management. No one wants hungry spirits roaming around - hence the need for those priestly gatekeepers and the placatory, directive, summative funeral rituals and ceremonies that they presided over.
    We don't believe that anymore - but the challenge of the day is to persuade people that the risk of haunting, the need to feel that a journey has been completed and that there is some sort of good end for us hasn't gone away. It's just that those needs are ours now.
    Your list, GM, is like a clarion call for the sort of emotional intelligence that recognises this. Deserves repeating; disseminating.

  6. It's what you do after anything -- have a wash-up, an audit; sit around and reflect, and look ahead and speculate, and generally reconfigure yourself to altered circumstances. Inasmuch as a death reconfigures things greatly, palaver is definitely called for, and fol-de-rol. After the funeral, Jews sit shiva for a week and say the kaddish daily for a year. That's the way!

  7. Thank you Vale, I love your moving of the anti-haunting function and the need for a good end, from the hungry spirits to the mourners.

    And thanks Charles - I wonder if one day we will work through to a Jewishification, as it were, of our behaviour after a death? Palaver and Fol-de-rol. Good formula!