The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Doing them justice

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Judgement_day_IMG_1369

 

Over on the Mindfulness and Mortality blog, in a discussion about funeral eulogies, Gloriamundi asks a good question:

“Why do we seem to feel the need to sum up a life and pass judgement on it?”

He goes on: “The torrent of unqualified praise that falls on someone who has just died is an expression of sorrow and compassion, of course.” He wonders, though, if  “the only way to set the balance straight and strive for a more balanced, seemingly accurate picture would be to talk about the less angelic side of someone’s nature.”

Gloriamundi concludes: “Who are we to pronounce judgement upon the flickering, shimmering transience of a personality? The imperfect wonders of a human life? Let’s accept the limits of human judgement and not encumber a funeral with verdicts.”

Instead: “How much better to have people tell us, directly or via the celebrant, what the person meant to them. How much better to have anecdotes and stories that illustrate some well-known characteristics; they bring about the smiles of recognition and affectionate grief, they mean much more than generalised and abstract judgements.”

It’s a perennial question: what exactly is the purpose of a funeral eulogy within the context of a funeral rite?

Well, what are the expectations of the audience?  Do those who come to a funeral expect an evaluation of the dead person?

Yes, they probably do, don’t they? Religious people, for sure, believe that death is when we render our final account to God and receive, in awe and trembling, some sort of verdict on our life. As the Bible says, on the Day of Judgement, “who shall stand when he appeareth? for he [is] like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.”

God is less like fullers’ soap nowadays, more of a mate, but nonetheless: there’s a widespread sense among the unchurched, too, that death is a time for totting up and taking stock. Unbelievers and those of fuzzy faith want their celebrant to deliver a final reckoning, albeit with a much massaged bottom line  – more soft soap than fullers’.

So perhaps Gloriamundi and her/his kind ought to view a eulogy as, essentially, an exercise in creative accounting.

But for a eulogist to try and meet the expectations of the audience if those expectations are no more than a cultural hand-me-down is, some would argue, no longer useful nor necessary — it’s time, now, to set aside the traditional funeral in favour of a more apt vehicle. If so, what would that vehicle look like?

As it happens, the eminent humanist Harold Blackman designed one. He questioned the focus on the corpse and the usefulness of the public funeral ritual. He favoured a private, corpse-free (‘unencumbered’) funeral ritual – he called it a memorial meeting – featuring, in the words of his eulogist, Nigel Collins, a “reasonably full, frank and above all honest account of the subject – so, crucially, more a multi-faceted tribute than an idealised eulogy.” This looks very close to the Gloriamundi position.

In Blackman’s words: “Modern humanists should not make much of funeral rites, disposal of the body, attendance on it at the tomb; rather, they should encourage friends and relatives to come together to contribute from their memories and impressions to the creation of a new image of the person they knew, harvesting what was cultivated and produced in life.”

Again: “Even for the most private person, the unencumbered memorial meeting is the real tribute to the dead and the real admonition to the living, for it helps to redeem the loss in a living image and it asks for a life worth valuing. The Memoryconcentration and collective contribution of the memorial meeting can raise and reinforce the image of the lost person with the sharpness of finality that survives dispersion. This should be a harvest ritual rather than a tomb ritual.

When Blackman first proposed these ideas to the Royal Society in 1967 he encountered “violent protest … Many of [the Fellows] at least could not tolerate the idea of not paying respect to the dead in the customary way.”

That was almost 50 years ago. Blackman died in 2009 at the ripe age of 105 and was accorded a memorial meeting according to his own model — here.  He would be interested to observe the waning of the focus on the corpse that seems to be under way today. And he’d probably like the cut of Gloriamundi’s jib.

reproduction_painting-England-Glendening, Alfred 1861 - 1907-Resting From The Harvest

6 comments on “Doing them justice

  1. Jonathan

    Saturday 10th May 2014 at 10:05 pm

    It seems to me to be worth reflecting on the fact that the word ‘eulogy’ unequivocally means praise. A eulogy that doesn’t sanctify its subject is in truth not worthy of the name; and if we want a more honest depiction of the dead at their funerals, a different word to describe it would itself be more honest

    The word’s origins may appear to many of no consequence now, but I believe words have more power than we credit them with. They come from deep in our past; they are in our bodies as much as in our dictionaries; when we use them, the history of their meanings resonates deeply within and between us. We can use a word like ‘eulogy’ as a casual, throwaway gesture to mean whatever we want, but we cannot escape its legacy. It is, some say, a word confused in meaning between late Latin ‘eulogia’, meaning praise, and Latin ‘elogium’, meaning epitaph, in turn simply meaning words written in memory of a person who has died; effectively, ‘upon a tomb’.

    Why give it the word eulogy and create an ambiguity where none exits, when what we want is perhaps closer to the innocuous ‘epitaph’?

  2. Friday 9th May 2014 at 11:54 am

    Choice rules, of course. Hard as it is to swallow sometimes.
    But ‘judgements’ ….. for heavens sake? I can only think of them as a cheap and unsatisfying way to vent a shallow opinion (though possibly one unexpressed in public, and while this may be stingy it may also be helpful); but judgements should be avoided, and the family led to higher ground.
    As Wendy says so well, speak of a life honestly and with understanding.
    Going deeper to get below the shallow summary is the least we can do in remembering someone. Being honest in this attempt is valiant. Trying to make sense of the forces that were at work is respectful.
    Re the presence of the body: I’ve always liked the contrast in atmosphere and level of noise once the body has gone off to the crem/is in the ground: the sense is we have done our duty, and now folks can get on with life.
    I fear for ‘mourning lite’ in this virtual world, without appreciation for the physical.

    • tim clark

      Friday 9th May 2014 at 5:27 pm

      Yes, “mourning lite” – perish the thought. Not that one wants to prescribe mourning depth or duration, but neither is skating over the top of end-of-life realities a healing option.

      Wise words James – as you say, an appreciation of the physical, a grounding.

  3. Thursday 8th May 2014 at 9:25 pm

    What a really interesting development of the slippery ideas that we’ve been dealing with, Charles. Thank you.

    It’s hard, isn’t it, to separate one’s personal preferences from what people actually want. It’s not so much that I want a better balance of plus and minus in a eulogy/tribute – though it can certainly make the picture more honest. It’s more that although headline-type judgements are still often called for in ceremonies I’m involved with, I feel increasingly unsure they are ultimately feasible. I’d certainly rather they were made by family and friends than me. But – if asked to say them, of course I will. That’s our role.

    But maybe such judgements do have a ritual function, a rounding off and saying goodbye flavour to them, that is more important than the content of the judgements.

    But I do think funeral rituals are most effective when the body is present for at least part of the time, even if it’s not visible in its box! A good funeral can surely help people let go of the physical presence and concentrate on what will stay with them. That’s probably more powerful if we all know that “he’s in there!” It hurts more, it works more. Maybe.

  4. Thursday 8th May 2014 at 8:27 pm

    An interesting read. Thanks Charles. I have conducted funerals where the family made it clear they did not want to paint the deceased as a saint and the respectful honesty about the challenging behaviour of the deceased was positively received because the mourners could relate to the person described. The eulogy had integrity because it was honest.
    The skill of course is describing the person honestly without being hurtful or offensive. That is what I enjoy most when writing a tribute.
    Ref presence of the body perhaps with more non religious funerals taking place in alternative venues to the crematorium or cemetery this will stimulate choice?

  5. Thursday 8th May 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Fascinating reading, Charles, thank you.
    You know my perpetual stand on this…the body’s presence at a funeral is important for some and not for others regardless of faith (or lack thereof). What we need is as many models as possible.
    I did, however, really enjoy reading the transcript of the memorial and I shall be returning to it for the purposes of my research.
    Thank you for posting it!

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