Posted by Sweetpea
In the light of our recent discussions about the merits of secular, civil and religious funerals, one interesting thread started to appear. Namely, what should a funeral not fail to include? Can a funeral ever really be meaningful to anyone? Does any funeral do the things that people need it to do? Well, for the sake of clarity, I’d like to leave the actual ritual contents of a civil or secular funeral for another day. For the moment, I think we should go one step further back, to examine how the foundations of a good funeral rite are laid. Cutting through all the arguments about the contents of a funeral, be it of whatever shade, I think the key to the success of a funeral rite (and I have no doubt that a successful funeral is possible) is one overarching thing: Relevance.
And the mechanism for allowing the door to open to Relevance? Well, that begins with well informed people who instinctively know what will be right for them, and just as importantly know where to find it. Failing that, a knowledgeable and empathetic funeral director who can guide those people towards what is the best path for them. And failing that, an experienced and skilful celebrant/member of the clergy/friend to offer advice and support to bring them to where they need to be.
The notion of Relevance should permeate the entire proceedings from beginning to end – from funeral preparations to the enactment of the rite itself. It doesn’t happen by accident, and needs empathetic, practical and experienced people working together to make it happen. As has been so wonderfully written elsewhere by Jonathan: ‘if you just listen to a family it brings it all down out of the whirlwind in the sky and settles it more easily on the ground. Stop. Do nothing. Tell me how he died; how do you feel about his death; where does that leave you now; let’s look after him gently while we all decide what to do and, far more importantly, why we’re doing it and what we hope it will achieve. Does that involve some choices? Okay, let’s deal with them in our own good time, it’s not the choices that matter anyway.’
This simple, intuitive and effective process leads eventually to arrangements which, as Tom Lynch states ‘get the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be’. This might be a whole day spent on a hillside, with a grave dug and filled by friends on their own land, singing around a campfire until the early hours, it might be a requiem mass, it might be a twenty minute ceremony at a crematorium, followed by a celebratory knees-up at a favourite pub, it might be a C of E service followed by ham salad and scones in the village hall. If it’s relevant to these people, then that’s the nearest we are going to get to achieving those aims.
But let’s be under no illusions. Real emotional pain and damage is caused to grievers when a rite has no relevance to them – it’s traumatic and stays with them until their own dying day. We are perhaps more familiar with stories of religious rites leaving people disorientated and even more bereft because of a mis-matching of their needs and its expression. But this can be just as true for civil or secular funerals, something which I have observed when, say, a religiously inclined adult child has been painfully overruled or excluded from religious or spiritual expression by a surviving parent. Which leads us to part 2 – what should or shouldn’t be included in a successful funeral rite?