Posted by Richard Rawlinson
In recent decades the emphasis of funerals has gone from forward-looking to backward-looking. The traditional funeral marked the transition from this life to the future life beyond death. Details of the life of the dead person were less significant than the existence of the immortal soul. This eschatological approach has given way to thanksgiving services celebrating a past life, the quality of which are judged less on their hope of heavenly peace, and more on whether they capture the essence of the life that’s ended.
This is clearly a reflection of declining faith but it’s not merely a result of funerals being offered by secular celebrants. The vast majority of the 500,000-plus funerals in the UK each year continue to be conducted by Christian priests or the clergy of other faiths. While Christian funeral liturgy, with its eschatological emphasis, has changed little in centuries, the clergy are nevertheless responding to grass-roots demand for more eulogy, just as secular celebrants have emerged to meet this same demand for a retrospective approach at funerals.
So, committal aside, are both religious and secular funerals becoming what used to be the post-funeral memorial service, traditionally given to those deemed to have led remarkable lives? To rephrase Andy Warhol, even in death everyone is famous for 15 minutes.
It isn’t that simple, of course. Christian funerals don’t totally replace the future trajectory of the religious service, but simply add increasing time to the backward-looking aspects. Similarly, secular celebrations of life might include prayers, Bible readings and hymns that commend the soul to ever-lasting peace.
By popular demand, a middle way is winning the day. ‘I’m Christian-lite but I want my send-off to be largely about me’. ‘I’m atheist-lite but want some reference to an afterlife, just in case’. ‘I’m bereaved and want his/her send-off to move through a mix of fond recollections and hope that his/her essence continues, not just in memory but in some spiritual form’.
Will people in time increasingly let go of the hope of life beyond death? If more people today were persuaded to think deeply about their funeral requirements, would this be happening more quickly? Imagine, for example, a consumer survey which asked a cross section of people:
How much emphasis in your funeral do you want to be on a celebration of your past life, and how much on a future life beyond death?
Multiple choice answers could then range from 100% and 0% either way to a 50/50 split. (Note: it’s possible to have 0% after-life in a secular funeral but impossible to have 0% ‘you’ in a religious funeral).
Such an invitation to focus the mind might bring more clarity of purpose to funerals. Some might conclude: ‘As I never really think about spiritual matters, my plans for a quasi-religious service are lazy. I’ll instead nail my colours to the mast of the British Humanist Association with a totally godless ceremony.’
Others might go the other way. ‘I’ll now opt for Cranmer’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with its words filled with the promise of heaven. I’ll save talk of my career accomplishments, contribution to the community, family life, hobbies and interests for a memorial service later, or for a speech at a post-funeral gathering – rather like the best man’s speech during the wedding party that follows the ceremony itself’.
Then again, greater thought about funerals might not change the status quo one iota. An 80/20 mix of past and future might be any survey’s majority outcome.
A barrier to the acceleration of secular funerals is the liberal flexibility of the Church of England. Outside other Christian denominations and other faiths, it continues to have a virtual monopoly regardless of whether you’re devout, lapsed or never-really-think-about-it. This is because its instinct is to be malleable. Some funeral directors lead inbetweeners, as well as strident non-believers, to secular funeral celebrants, but more still steer them to the C of E clergy regardless.
In some ways, you have to pity the C of E’s predicament. Conspiracy theorists might claim the established church of the nation is determined not to relinquish its ‘ownership’ of the death arena, that it’s fighting to keep power. But Marx’s ‘religion is the opium of the people’ claim increasingly lacks substance as a slur on Christianity, and is, in fact, far more applicable to atheistic Communism, which tried, and failed, to control people’s lives and deny them free will.
While some clergy surely want to keep their foot in the door of as many households as possible in the hope of evangelising to ‘lost’ souls, others would content themselves with a smaller ministry to the existing faithful if a broader church meant diluting faith by being all things to all people. Some overworked priests are quietly exasperated when asked to take the funeral of someone who ‘was not religious’. What to include and what to leave out? I’ve heard references to a ‘crem duty funeral’ (when there’s been no opportunity to meet the family beforehand), and the funeral director has said, on the day, that the family don’t want any mention of resurrection or life beyond death.
Religious or secular, it’s important to think about your funeral service and celebrant, not automatically heed the advice of your appointed funeral director. Some FDs listen and offer good advice, whether you want a priest, secular celebrant, Interfaith minister or New Age guru. Others, to rephrase Henry Ford, say ‘you can have any colour as long as it’s the C of E’.