The question Can you have a funeral without a body? is not as useful as the question Why would you have a dead body at a funeral? Yes, yes, you can’t have a wedding or a civil partnership without the happy couple, and you can’t have a baby naming without a baby, so how can you have a funeral without a corpse? But are these events equivalent to a funeral? A corpse is a passive, insensate participant, that’s the difference. Yes, a baby is not an active participant at its naming, but it has to live with the consequences. What difference does a funeral make to a corpse?
That’s the nub of it. And the answer is that for some people a funeral does make a difference to the corpse and for others it does not.
There are, I think, three ways you can view a dead body. Think, now, of your own body when it’s dead. Which of the following will apply?
1. My body and my soul belong together (I am not dead, I am sleeping).
2. I had a body. Now I am a spirit (my body is old clothes).
3. I had a body. That was me (ditto).
Each describes a specific bodily status. Number 1 is explicitly Christian; you are sort of sleeping, awaiting resurrection in your earthly body. Number 2 is broadly spiritual. Number 3 is explicitly atheist. If you are a number 1 or 2 you are going somewhere; you are in a state of transition, the difference being that 2s leave their bodies behind. If you are a number 3 everything stopped when you took your last breath. Every minute that passes thereafter leaves you further and further in the past.
In order to mark the transition of a dead body number 1 it makes good sense to demonstrate its continuing dynamic by physically bringing it to a departure ceremony and wish it safe journey.
For a number 2 body I’d have thought a departure ceremony optional. John Lennon was a 2. Yoko One had his body burnt unattended and held a memorial ceremony instead, to take place everywhere and anywhere. “Pray for his soul from wherever you are,” she said. But inasmuch as the flight of a soul is about movement and transition and endurance, a farewell ceremony for the body is an appropriately symbolic alternative.
As for the number 3s, I’m not sure that they’ve thought this through. Ask an atheist if he or she wants to be cremated or buried. Chances are you’ll be made aware of a strong preference, arrived at in the consideration of a strong revulsion for one or the other. Wrong answer. The right answer is that it doesn’t matter a bit.
So, for number 3s, atheists, to bring a dead body, outworn carcass and so much deadweight, to a farewell ceremony would seem to be illogical and unnecessary. For atheists, surely, it’s got to be a memorial service every time?
My argument is not nearly as cut and dried as it seems.