The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Priests and secular celebrants

Monday, 12 December 2011

 

 

By Richard Rawlinson

 

Today’s elderly, even when not religious, are more likely to choose a funeral conducted by a priest (pastor/vicar depending on denomination) than a secular celebrant. Given the choice between a person in a robe or business suit, they opt for the former. Their decision seems as natural to them as taking the dog to the vet rather than the local homoeopath on yell.com, even if they were aware of the alternative choice.

This generational conventionalism is set to be eroded in the years to come as today’s middle aged – more strident in their secularism – plan their send-offs. Instead of feeling comforted by the involvement of those in holy orders, many see the religiosity of the ensuing services as more hindrance than help: they don’t feel the need for prayers for their immortal souls; the division of limelight between God and the deceased might bore their attendant family and friends; and, worse still, some priests seem to jump at the opportunity to proselytise to this captive audience of non-churchgoers. Rarely successfully.  

So the swords are crossed. Teams huddle to plan strategy. Neither opponent is in it for financial reward, although they’d both welcome a steadier stream of cheques from those who choose their service. At the moment, the priests have the virtual monopoly (about 465,000 of the 500,000 who die in the UK each year, according to the National Association of Funeral Directors). But for how long?

The motives on both sides are honourable by and large. They want to give the deceased and bereaved the funeral they deserve: smooth-running, comforting, memorable, moving, inspiring, beautiful, profound. If any professional pride comes into play, it’s because they’re aware of the inherent communication skills, charisma and hard graft required to pull off such a feat.

The clergy assess their situation. It’s important to remind ourselves here that priests come in all forms from the extremes of progressive and conservative to varying shades in the middle. To complicate human nature further, all types can seem loving, intelligent and charismatic to some, and annoying to others. A darling of liberals might seem muddled to the traditionalist. Muscular orthodoxy might seem intrusive and domineering to those who prefer TV’s amiable Rev. What’s more, whether woolly or forthright, both camps can be either good or bad communicators: some people literally exude star quality, others lead us to assume they must have had their heads shoved down the lavatory at school.

When addressing the slow but steady loss to civil celebrants of funerals within their parish community, it’s inevitable there’s disagreement among these men (and women) in holy orders about the best ways to keep death ritual in the religious sphere.

They may comfort themselves that funeral directors still tend to put most ‘business’ their way (more blogs on why this is, please). Clergy might also feel at an advantage as they don’t just deal professionally in death like some in the funeral industry: they’re the shepherds of living parishioners, who they see at church and during school and hospital visits; who they baptise, confirm, marry and counsel in times of need. Their churches are not linked only to dying and visited under duress like the crematoria.

But they’d be unwise to be complacent about the growing demand for good secular celebrants. Like the clergy, these celebrants come in various shapes and sizes. Some appeal to the more forthright atheist, others – believing in bespoke service – more readily tailor their service to audiences made of different faiths and none, perhaps going along with requests for prayers, hymns, and so forth.    

This in some ways places them head to head with the more liberal members of the clergy, those who are keen to adapt to mixed congregations, both atheist-lites and those simply without strong religious convictions. In ‘market’ terms, this is rich picking. Of the four in 10 Brits who claim membership of the Church of England, it’s clear many are secularists, who increasingly see hypocrisy in using their church simply for baptisms, weddings, funerals and the Christmas carol service. The NAFD has confirmed that most of those choosing non-religious funerals were ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ Protestants, whereas lapsed Catholics remain more likely to uphold the ceremonial traditions of their forefathers, hedging their bets, so to speak.

This leads to consideration of various ongoing debates here at GFG: the discussion about secular ritual, whether religion-inspired or not; the shared, non-denominational nature of crematoria, and the call for faith groups to adjust to mixed funeral audiences.

The latter discussion point, in particular, depends on personal taste. I’d happily pay respects at a secular or multi-faith funeral at a crematorium, but I’d choose for myself a requiem mass in a Catholic church followed by a graveside committal on consecrated ground. I’d want less emphasis on eulogy in the homily, and more on praying for my immortal soul in Purgatory. Loved ones can celebrate my life before and after the mass, if they so wish, but I’d hope, whether they’re secular or from a different faith group, they’d accept my wish to keep the sacred mass centred on (my) God.

It should not be a ‘duty’ to homogenise all funerals to make them inclusive of all. When the culture is strong, it trumps good manners. When the culture is not a heartfelt issue, then general consensus can take over. There’s a difference between multicultural society and pluralist society. In society, cultures do not all mix as one homogenous whole but they should be able to coexist peacefully with their different cultures respected by others.

A multifaith funeral may indeed be a good thing, perhaps for the majority today. But, for the minority of resolute religious or indeed militant atheists, there will always be some things too important to compromise.

This has been the case with decades of ecumenical conferences held by different Christian denominations striving unrealistically for unity on key issues. Ecumenism more often than not means disparate groups getting together to proselytise their own cause. I’d rather a smaller Church that’s not diluted than a bigger Church that’s lost its meaning. 

 

Ed’s note: If this has got you thinking, you may be interested in a Muslim view of traditional religious funeral culture vs the way we are today. Here’s a taster:For the first time in my life, I really needed religion to give me solace, but here I was, listening to an unfamiliar language where the word “devil” kept popping up, alarming rather than comforting me.” Full article in the Guardian here

8 comments on “Priests and secular celebrants

  1. Richard Rawlinson

    Wednesday 14th December 2011 at 7:17 pm

    And another thing… I don’t think it’s at all hypocritical, Gloria, to conduct a staunchly atheist funeral one day and a secular ceremonial with a few prayers and hymns thrown in the next.

    I don’t want to get myself in trouble again by talking about consumer demand but ‘serving the diverse community with bespoke ceremony’ is a sensitive dimension of the job!

    It’s just that liberalising of the Church can weaken it, not strengthen it. Ecumensim is often hot air: Anglicans in recent years have pandered to market forces in a way that makes them firmly Protestant as opposed to Anglo-Catholic, seeking union with Rome. And Catholic revival is at its most buoyant and indeed youthful in more traditional circles, something that gives me cause for optimism.

    You’re right about GFG being remarkably troll-free! A small coterie, lacking debating skills, get personal instead (and I’m invariably the catalyst) but it remains an admirably civilised place all in all!

  2. Monday 12th December 2011 at 4:40 pm

    Hmph. Volkische thinking seems to me to be a bad thing.

  3. Richard Rawlinson

    Monday 12th December 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks, Gloria, Rupert and Melissa

    Gloria, I’m glad we’ve cleared some of the misunderstanding: Choice is good – Christianity is about free will and proselytising is rarely the answer, but neither is homogenising by secularists if it means a compromised Church.

    We’ve seen the latter fail in Communism and, to get politically topical, it’s happening again with the federalist technocrats of the crumbling EU!

    A sign at the Brussels HQ reads (no joke): ‘National sovereignty is the root cause of most of the evils of our time. The only final remedy for this supreme and catastrophic evil is a federal union of the peoples.’

    My retort to such piffle is a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V:
    Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;

    Or close the wall up with our English dead.
    
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

    As modest stillness and humility:
    
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
    
You know your places: God be with you all!

  4. Jonathan

    Monday 12th December 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I’d have said that figure is quite accurate in these parts, Rupert.

  5. Monday 12th December 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Interesting stuff!

  6. Monday 12th December 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I agree with Gloria. Thought provoking, balanced piece, though I do also think that figure is skewed.

  7. Monday 12th December 2011 at 11:00 am

    What an excellent post, thank you Richard. Your emphasis on varieties of belief coupled with the naturally huge variety in the qualities of celebrants and priests reminds us that the perfect funeral is all but impossible, because of the range of needs, wishes and beliefs in yer average (?) gathering at the local crem.

    I like your emphasis on a smaller Church that holds on to the essential meanings, that’s how I like my Christians to be! But hypocritically, I don’t feel like that about secular ceremonies, i.e. I’ll help with a staunchly atheist ceremony, ditto for a “don’t know” sort of family who want the detailed personal tribute plus two hymns and the 23rd psalm. I just want the funeral to be a good one, whatever they believe, whatever I believe.

    It’s not, incidentally, that I want the Christians to be a smaller Church so I can nick their ‘business.’ It’s simply and selfishly, that I find it reassuring that there is a less worldly area “over there” that I can relate to if I wish. E.g. if I nip into Lincoln Cathedral, I want to hear the choir practising Tallis, not a watered-down rock band playing some half-baked effort at a religious-ish song.

    A teacher at my secondary school started explaining the miracles in scientific terms.The burning bush was apparently a spontaneous ignition of natural methane, and the Sea of Galilee is deceptively shallow in places, so Jesus wasn’t really walking on water…. A miracle is a miracle, matey, I was thinking, hence the name!

    So vive la difference, provided the dialogues continue where productive. As on the GFG, where we only very occasionally pick up a troll!

  8. Monday 12th December 2011 at 10:08 am

    Richard, do you have a published source for these figures please? 93% seems incredibly high. I would take issue with it immediately. I wonder how the NAFD reached this figure?

    My own figures show an exact match between numbers of religious and secular funerals over the past year, and I very much doubt if I’m the exception to the rule.

    Thanks.

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