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.