Charles Cowling

The Movement for Reform Judaism has just published its new funeral service. It contains material – readings, poems – recommended by, among others, the devotedly atheist Claire Rayner. The purpose is, according to Rabbi Jonathan Magonet, to “allow more options to make it easier for rabbis taking the service to meet the needs of the people who are there.”

It’s all about inclusivity. In addition to secular readings there are prayers for stillborns and suicides.

The rationale for reaching out to non-believers, says Magonet, is to meet the needs of families who want a religious funeral for a non-believer: “The family can be in a bit of a quandary. If you respect the beliefs of the person who is dead, then the liturgical stuff would have been very strange and not asked for. But the family needs to have the comfort of a proper religious funeral.

Says Claire Rayner, “I see it as a progressive move. I think it’s splendid to reach out to atheists who may be in the congregation. It is a mature and grown up way to behave.”

It sounds a bit like the sort of ceremony delivered by civil celebrants with this difference: it’s not an essentially secular affair with religious elements, it’s the other way around. And the same potential criticism applies. If it makes no sense for a civil celebrant to recite prayers they don’t believe, it makes no sense for people of faith to acknowledge a faith position which is the mortal enemy of their own. For as Ms Rayner says, “Belief is a bad habit.”

A funeral ceremony which embraces antithetical beliefs is either incoherent or it’s not. It’s your call.

But can you see atheists being so accommodating? And who’s to say they wouldn’t be right?

One thought on “Faith-lite?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    I am grateful to you, Charles, for laying out this piece, and to Mr Thurston for writing such a thoughtful argument about the falling-away of earthly connections that can occur, particularly in the case of older and also de-racinated people. As a ritualist, especially, I find the 'no service by request' impulse troubling, and am therefore motivated to explore it.

    A feeling of personal insignificance certainly seems to be an issue in the context of a 'globalised' and so badly managed world. But my own experience as a funeral celebrant leads me to interpret the 'spiritual but not religious' position not as another expression of a sense of personal insignificance but as a code for an unexplored position. In our times of real 'freedom of worship', many people find that they have drifted (or marched) away from a religious practice that might have been imposed on them in youth. However, people also tend to lead a relatively unexamined life, feeling little need to probe or articulate their own positions on metaphysics.

    One of the difficulties faced by bereaved families is therefore the challenge of accelerating towards some articulation that will serve the process of shaping the funeral. Parts of the UK undertaking trade, lumbering slowly beyond a lazy God-or-Humanism analysis, nowadays recognise the hitherto under-served category of 'spiritual but not religious'. People in this category are the ones I typically work with. Careful probing, of those whose thoughts and feelings are often awhirl in grief, reveals and clarifies the proper character and elements of a ritual that will be meaningful. This may involve an animist/'pagan' world-view that recognises the power and glory of nature, of Gaia, of the cosmos, of the life-force. It may include familiar 'cultural' forms such as the poetry of particular hymns and prayers.

    I sense that people are often relieved to find the support to perceive and articulate these otherwise inchoate but often deeply felt positions. The effect on the whole bereaved community of the principal mourners' taking the trouble to do this work is very constructive. The expression 'spiritual but not religious' therefore doesn't feel to me anything like a 'bluff' or a 'diversionary tactic' for diminishing the self. Rather, it describes a legitimate and important stance that is perhaps the essence of the New Age.

    It would be interesting to hear from others about this.


    Charles Cowling

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