A party for a parting

Charles Cowling

Jonathan posted an interesting thought the other day: if no-one had portrayed the pseudovictoriana we associate with funerals, can you think of anyone who would have invented it for themselves?.” It raises the question: if we were to start again with a clean sheet, how would we do them?

It’s a big question. Do funerals need to be reformed or re-visioned? Do we go on trying to make a bad thing better, or do we break the mould?

Or has the mould been broken? The so-called celebration of life led by a secular celebrant has, for those who reject organised religion, turned the tables on the well-meaningless utterances of a mumbling minister – if that’s the attitude you take to a ceremony whose ritual is the same for everyone. Modern secular funerals pride themselves on being unique ceremonies for unique people. They reject the one-size-fits-all (even though, in practice, there’s very little difference between most of them). In doing so, they overlook the great and enviable strength and comfort of the one-size-fits-all ritual, best explained by Thomas Long: “Someone we love has died, and so once again we get out our old scripts, assemble on the stage, and act out one more time the great and hopeful drama of how the Christian life moves from death to life … We do this again and again, every time someone dies, because it is important for our bodies to know the way home.” If this results in the depersonalisation of the dead person, I mean the deceased, this is not the fault of the ritual: “Jane Doe’s funeral will inevitably be Jane Doe’s funeral, and who she actually was will make a difference in the sounds and rhythms of the ritual.” All religious rituals have been refined over hundreds of years. Where they have retained their theological confidence they have evolved, as the result of tens of thousands of tweaks, into stunning theatre – as any Catholic requiem mass will testify. The religious funeral in this country is reckoned to have been discredited by timeserving duty ministers and crem cowboys: the ones who didn’t give a damn. Sure, they helped it on its primrose path. But what actually did for it was loss of ritual nerve, the desire to make the most of a pastoral opportunity, the timid wish not to give offence to non-believers: the adulteration of the ritual. For all that a fullblooded requiem mass may be, for some, an alien rite in the House of Rimmon, none but the most bilious atheist would deny that it’s a heck of a fine affair. The truth is that the Church can do a bloody good funeral – as Brother Felix will testify.

Where there’s no familiar ritual to enact you’ve to start from scratch, hurry up, make it up, improvise. Hope it turns out okay, not an incoherent flim-flam of ill-assorted elements. But risk missing the point or getting the emphases wrong or ending up with nobbut an entertainment, the triumph of the trivial over the profound. It takes a great deal more intelligence of both mind and heart to create a ceremony which effects the transformation of mourning than we see in so many of today’s so-much-better secular ceremonies. It takes rigour.

There’s a link at the bottom video to a video which illustrates much of the poverty of the modern funeral. It’s called A Party for Kath. A party for a parting, geddit? It’s a product of Dying Matters Awareness Week (don’t you dare tell me it passed you by), itself the product of the Dying Matters Coalition, which started life as a gaggle of quangos and now incorporates thousands of associated rag-tag bodies. There is much about this Coalitition that makes me uncomfortable. The way it talks down. The way it supposes talking about death to be a conversation made necessary by a life-limiting event, not by birth. The way it asserts that talking about your ‘preferences’ will make your death good. The way it implicitly advocates dying at home without acknowledging that a hospital is actually custom built to look after very ill people, and without acknowledging either that, though most people say they’d like to die at home, they tend not to if they have been involved in a home death. Frankly, the statement, “Dying Matters hopes to help make ‘a good death’ the norm for the more than 500,000 people who die in England each year” seems to me as well-meaningly fatuous as a C of E funeral.

Above all, to promote the notion that funerals should be directed by the dead seems to me to be wrongheadedness bordering on wickedness – and music to the ears of the funeral plan salespeople. The dying want their funerals to be cheap, cheerful, fuss free, not upsetting and garnished with finger food. Well, here’s a message to the dying (ie, all of us): that recipe doesn’t work if they hated you, it doesn’t work if they loved you and it doesn’t work if they were mostly indifferent to you. It doesn’t work whatever they felt about you. Say what you’d like, by all means, just as you always do before your birthday. Then butt out and leave it to them.

Only when the living engage with their duty to shoulder responsibility, to hurt and think and work, will they know what needs to be done and what needs to be said. It’s a regret to me that the Dying Matters Coalition hasn’t got the emotional and intellectual rigour to talk tough and get that message out.

Watch A Party for Kath here.

A bit discursive, this post. It needs editing. I’m not out of rigour, but I am out of time. Sorry! As for the choice of Rod Stewart – well, yes, a bit gratuitous.

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