The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Human rites

Friday, 18 December 2009

They call it a rite of passage, a funeral, but I’m not so sure that that’s the right term for it. Is a funeral directly comparable with other rites of passage? We mark coming of age and matrimony with rituals which speak of transition—what scholastic folk call liminality. But, though we can push a young person across the threshold into adulthood, we cannot stop that young person from making a bolt for it and scampering back. And though we shower a connubial couple with hope as they vow to become one flesh, we know perfectly well that the rite is far from irreversible.

Unlike a funeral. What is missing from a funeral, for most people, is any sense of expectancy—of wonderful possibilities. All other rites register growth and progression. Not a funeral, not for most people. No life, no future. Dead. End.

You can look at it another way. All the other rites are social events which recognise a person’s social dynamic—an augmentation of their social role. But, interestingly, possibly regrettably, we have no rites of passage which recognise a person’s loss of social dynamic and tapering social role. The menopause, for example. Or the economic menopause, when a person retires. Or that day of dismay when a person becomes at best a tangential member of society by going to live in a carehome warehouse. If we are to set aside the Christmas spirit for a moment, we can perhaps acknowledge the bleak truth that, for most of us, social death precedes physical death, often by many years.

That there should be all sorts of confusion about exactly what sort of ceremony a funeral is, is not surprising in an age where most people disregard the ancient verities of faith and come to it more or less hope-less. So, what do we do? We dress it up somewhat like a rite of passage, a social event, and using that template we import some of the ingredients, even balloons.

But it’s an existential event, too, with much of the aspect of a black hole. Which is why we don’t take photographs of it. I don’t suppose many people think about that for a moment, don’t need to. You wouldn’t take your camera to a funeral, it would never occur to you to do that, it’s simply not done, perish the thought. At any other rite of passage the cameras and the phones blink away like crazy. Never at a funeral.

Yes, a funeral is different. All other rites of passage are reckoned memorable, deserving of documentation and preservation for future delectation. Photos make memories manifest. How we love to pore over the snaps. Ooh, look at her there!! Aaaaaah!!!

But a funeral is, for most people, a forgettable event. Ask them. They say their memory is a blur. This is not only because they were dazed at the time by grief, it is also because they have subsequently done what they can to consign it to oblivion, to wipe it. In family histories, death is either omitted or passed over quickly, extrinsic, dis-integrated. And that may well not be a good thing.

Real funerals are for emotional grown-ups. Not all are photogenic: the raw, the angry, the guilty, the messy, the tragic.

But some are. Here’s one, and a very sad one, too. It’s a burial at sea. Lots of cameras. See it here.

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