I am extremely grateful to Gordon Thurston for this thorough and thoughtful analysis of the growing rejection in parts of both the US and Canada of the traditional practice of holding a funeral with the body of the person who has died present, and the preference, instead, either for a memorial service or for no farewell ceremony of any kind. It’s a phenomenon I have previously examined here, here, here and here.
This phenomenon is something that has been a part of the funeral scene here for all of my twenty-two years of service to the funeral industry. As a former United Church clergyman in private practice (because I withdrew my name from the role of Presbytery long ago) I have attempted to meet people “where they come from,” in the North American vernacular. These are people who have no religious affiliation (or want none) and yet feel the need for some official presence to oversee the funeral of a loved one. In fact we call these events memorial services because most often the body is not present. Indeed cremation is most often the chosen method of disposition and frequently has taken place even before the service itself. So it seems we have found a way of distancing ourselves from the immediate reality of death. Actually years ago when the Memorial Society was just making inroads into the funeral industry their main focus was to reduce the often excessive costs of a funeral. However an interesting note in some of the earliest Memorial Society advocates was that a service of any kind was deemed barbaric or too primitive for an enlightened people anyway. It seemed to me that what they were trying to infer is that life is everything and death is and should be nothing. That attitude by the way did not catch on, at least in all its bluntness – but it did have some modified versions, beginning with a memorial service where the body is missing and culminating in the phenomenon known as “No Service By Request.” And yet through this continuum, while cost has been an aspect – and barbarism notwithstanding – they are not the underlying factors. However there is no other simple or straightforward reason for the phenomena either.
In my experience a memorial service does not seem to imply an obvious avoidance of cost – nor does No Service By Request either for that matter. In fact I believe the problem (if one can call it a problem) is much more of an enigma than that we are somehow more enlightened and therefore do not need to honour our dead. No Service By Request is in no way an intellectual decision but rather a much deeper and little understood phenomenon. While people may talk about the practicality of a funeral, citing the exorbitant expense, that really is a bit of a cover up, I believe, from something much more emotional. Phrases like, “I want to save my family the stress,” or “I’m not religious anyway,” I feel are used to rationalize one’s decision not to have a service. But even behind this is something I believe to be even more cryptic. It keeps coming down to the belief that he or she does not matter that much anyway and so why put family and friends through the ordeal. So while it is never actually said, the implication is that one’s sense of worth as a human being is somehow being called into question. Who am I to request a service with all the fuss and the emotional upheaval it promotes!?
And “I’m not worth it” is not just a statement about lack of self-esteem either. It seems to go much deeper and is more all-pervading. Robert Wright in his book, Nonzero – The Logic of Human Destiny, purports that as the world has become smaller because of travel and communication and yet our worldview has expanded, and quite exponentially so with the internet and the overwhelming nature of the information age, what has followed is that while individuals are made to feel empowered by it all there is a loss of personal significance as well. The result has been for people to abandon communal settings like churches and other social centres for their homes where a computer can open up the world to them on the one hand and yet insulate and isolate them on the other. E-mail and Face Book, as do chat rooms and game playing and the like, provide the illusion of keeping in touch and being a part of a community (a global one at that), but the process is often done in relative solitude. We are more voyeuristic than involved in things. What is more, the steady diet of news coming into our living rooms and bombarding us with negativity exacerbates the problem. So ironically, as the world opens up, a more pervading sense of personal insignificance is the result.
Perhaps that helps to explain some of the context for a phenomenon like No Service By Request – at least in North America. However there is another aspect, which is perhaps more the case here on the West Coast than elsewhere. For instance in Canada when folks retire those that can afford it and/or who are simply tired of winter simply relocate to British Columbia and to Greater Victoria in particular. In so doing they not only leave behind the extreme weather but also their roots. In so doing many take that opportunity to abandon some of the traditions that were a part of their lives “back home” – some of which were almost taken for granted in their former contexts anyway. In the case of my own parents, as it was with one of my best but much older friends, Eric (a Brit by the way) they had been people very much involved in their local churches before moving. Once here however they not only did not find a church to join but never even attended another one again. In neither situation was there any indication that they had lost their faith. What they believed and the context for those beliefs had simply changed focus. Granted retirees tend to reduce their commitments and along with doing so their sense of obligation once felt being a part of organizations BUT I believe abandoning one’s church is quite another issue. Like the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon who discovered that they did not really need either their country or their temple in order to worship their God, with their move to the West Coast my parents and friend found their spiritual needs being met elsewhere – and in more intimate ways. Family and those friends that had endured the tests of time tended to matter more and the traditions and trappings of organized religion less.
Now that did not mean that my parents and friend chose not to have a service when they died – because they all have passed away. My mom and dad wanted a service and pre-paid for that and all their funeral arrangements well before their demise. My three sisters and I conducted both services by the way. My friend, Eric, on the other hand was very specific and told his two sons that whatever they did for him was to be informal, as had been done for his late wife. A barbershop singer of great passion (that is how I came to be a part of Eric’s life – I was the tenor in several quartets with him) we had an event at the home of one of his sons. I spoke (an emotional experience I must say) and of course there was barbershop singing.
I tell you of these instances because they underscore a trend – away from traditions and toward some other way of celebrating life posthumously. It is not at all a regretful thing – as you I am sure can well appreciate given your Good Funeral Guide. However there are a significant percentage of people who have no alternatives for celebrating life, other than what is provided by churches and/or funeral homes and so have nothing. Indeed they may well have been turned off by right wing American Christian fundamentalism on the one hand or the impersonal rituals of much more ecclesiastical denominations, Roman Catholic and the Anglican churches in particular on the other but even that is a bit of a smoke screen. The underlying reasons for no service is neither that straightforward nor that simple in my estimation. In fact like another friend of mine who is in the process of making funeral plans (his demise is in no way imminent by the way) and who asked me for some advice, his first inclination was to request that no service be held. The man is even a member of the church my wife and I attend! Obviously then the phenomenon in some instances is not even conditional on church experience good or bad. When I asked him about his thinking around that choice he could not give me a reason other than to say that it was no big deal anyway because who would attend!? The guy is a wonderful wit and in no way a fading violet (indeed often a moderator leading a service). There is no doubt that there will be great numbers attending his service when the time comes. However a sense of insignificance is all I could conclude was his rationale.
That is why the short answer to why No Service By Request is for me a variation on the theme of “I’m not worth it.” A sense of personal significance (or insignificance if you will) is as close as I can come to making sense out of the phenomenon. And while people rationalize and justify their decisions by citing cost and emotional burdens placed on loved ones left behind underneath it all is somehow this pervading feeling of unworthiness – once again a variation on the theme, the world is so big and I am so small. Even “I’m spiritual and not religious,” is but a diversionary tactic for diminishing oneself I believe. This kind of spirituality is seldom defined and thus never quite understood. And it’s a bluff.
So Charles all I can say is that if No Service By Request is “pretty much unheard of” over there it might be for several reasons. Tradition and traditions are deeper and have a thousand years of history to sustain them, not less than a hundred like here; and people cannot pick up and move away from such depth and dimension as readily there, unlike North America and the flaky West Coast people here! So you may not have to contend with this problem there.