The Good Funeral Guide Blog

The modern funeral is a grief-bypass procedure?

Friday, 20 May 2016



Stewart Dakers is a 76 year-old voluntary community worker with a weekly column in the Guardian. He wrote a piece in last week’s Spectator about funerals. Here’s a taster:

Funerals ain’t what they used to be. Today’s emphasis is more on celebrating a life past than honouring the future of a soul. While I am not averse to a celebratory element, the funeral is morphing into a spiritually weightless bless-fest. This was brought home to me last week at the funeral of Enid, a lady I knew only through our mutual attendance at bingo in the community centre.

I was uncomfortable from the moment we gathered outside the church, where my sombre suit set me apart from the Technicolor crowd of family and friends. The atmosphere was more akin to a wedding, even a hen do, than a funeral, the air drenched in perfume and aftershave. Inside, there was pew-to-pew chatter, wall-to-wall music (Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’, inevitably), not a single moment of silence, and not a single sacred song, let alone a prayer (an inaccurately mumbled Lord’s Prayer excepted). There were two readings, one by a grand-niece of perhaps eight, snivelling, bless, a poem about being only next door; then a nephew offering a eulogy, the main point of which was that his aunt had been a keen gardener ‘and she will plant her flowers in heaven’.

I know I shouldn’t sneer. Religion, the Anglican version anyhow, is a broad church with a wide liturgical spectrum. But I could not help feeling that such celebration missed the point. It somehow connected with a virtual life rather than a real death. It was spiritual displacement activity.

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here.


14 comments on “The modern funeral is a grief-bypass procedure?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Wednesday 25th May 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Mike, that’s a very interesting point you make about the Puritan funeral. In Britain the Directory of Public Worship (1644) ordained:

    “When any person departeth this life, let the dead body, upon the day of burial, be decently attended from the house to the place appointed for public burial, and there be immediately interred, without any ceremony.”

    This has a lot in common with present-day direct disposal and is consistent, I suppose, with an understanding of the status of the corpse, the Puritan view being: there’s nothing more you can do for this person, it’s between them and God. The direct cremationist’s view is likely to be that the vital essence has left the corpse, which is now just so much carcass, so why a funeral? S/he won’t be there. It may alternatively be the case that they can’t see what a funeral can do that cannot be achieved by other means. Whether or not the minimalist option of direct cremation will be followed by a reinvention of the funeral is open to question, but it’s intriguing to think that this might be the outcome. I hadn’t considered it in those terms! What’s certain, of course, is that ‘premature/’ deaths will go on being marked by funerals. There’s been no abatement of them. I think the death of a very old person needs no more than a little coda, often; but a young person well merits a hullaballoo.

  2. Tuesday 24th May 2016 at 11:03 pm

    Let’s just wait and see how Peggy Mitchell’s funeral is handled. In my experience, what happens in Eastenders is the way many funerals will go in the following months 🙂 My guess is this will be great news for owners of black ‘orses and horse-drawn ‘earses. But will she ‘ave a Vicar?

    • Andrew Rush

      Friday 27th May 2016 at 10:18 am

      “Git aht o’ mah fune-ral!”

  3. Charles Cowling

    Monday 23rd May 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I think you make a very interesting point, David. Speaking as a funeral puritan, I expect a funeral to do useful grief-work and accomplish a serious and difficult purpose. That probably makes me a snob. But if I’m signing a cheque for several thou, I want value for money. I recently went to a C of E funeral. There was no liturgy. Indeed, the smiley vicar seemed to me making it up as he went along, a bit of blither here, a bit of blather there, all twinkly-eyed small talk even though, in the midst of us, was a DEAD PERSON. I was furious. But none of the other mourners felt like that. They all thought it was a lovely service. I was outnumbered, but unpersuaded. Made me think, though.

    • Jonathan Taylor

      Monday 23rd May 2016 at 3:40 pm

      “A lovely service”? They all say that — you’d think some of them had never heard of Rainer’s ‘Secret Disappointment’. (Though buggered if I can see what’s so secret about it!)

    • Chris Price

      Tuesday 24th May 2016 at 8:24 am

      That’s interesting Charles, because my farewell is all about remembrance and a smile. I always make sure it is what people want and stress they can change it or have a different ceremony, but blow me if people don’t like a reminder that it’s ok to remember their loved one with a smile. After all, who wants to remember he was a miserable old sod who didn’t like anyone ?
      I deal with a lot of people my age who’s parents have passed away (I’m sixty two) and there is a definite sea change in what us baby boomers expect from their ceremony. We haven’t reached the stage where there is a recognised ritual to celebrants ceremonies ( the church has a two thousand year head start) but I think that there is a trend towards a celebratory ceremony. And yes, I think it does the job, judging from the feedback I get both from personal emails and IOCF feedback.

      • Michael Jarvis

        Tuesday 24th May 2016 at 10:06 am

        I think the word ritual may give secular celebrants a philosophical problem. Religious officiants have a defined office relating to the funeral. Staying with the C of E thread here, it doesn’t make any difference whether the priest uses liturgy from 1662, 1928, or 2005 inasmuch as they all prescribe a formula for the receipt of the body and its subsequent committal. That straightforward framework is of the essence, though it does allow for what one commentator has called ‘sentimental remembrances and optimistic assertions’ to be interwoven. The crux of the secular ‘problem’ is that the assembly do not have the possible residual comfort of an alternative to that religious / ritualistic contextual framework in the event of poor performance or misunderstood expectations. The solution cannot be some cobbled-up universal secular rite; it must be found individually through a proper dialogue at the outset between celebrant and family.

        • Charles Cowling

          Tuesday 24th May 2016 at 8:39 pm

          Mike, I am going to take issue with what you say in the spirit of debate. Are there or are there not certain bases that a funeral ought to touch? Might not a great many people be very pleased to be able to reach for a familiar script when someone dies? One of the things that most naffs me off about liturgy-lite funerals and a great many secular (for want of a better word) funerals is that you never know where you are in them – and suddenly they end. They fail for want of a decent plot. There is much to be said for a secular liturgy, I believe. It may be for want of one that so many people are deserting the funeral and opting instead for a memorial service. Having said which, once you’ve done away with prayers of commendation and committal, what’s the point of a funeral, anyway? It’s just a habit.

          • Michael Jarvis

            Wednesday 25th May 2016 at 12:11 pm

            I don’t think we are poles apart here, Charles. I sympathise with your aspiration for a pattern for a non-religious funeral order, I just can’t see how such a thing could be incubated. Your ‘liturgy-lite’ (great phrase – hope you haven’t got copyright!) is interesting as it’s precisely that which many people blame for declining C of E attendances. They refer to the dumbed-down language of the Alternative Service Book for their drift away, but when it comes to attending a funeral they still probably find some ease at the familiar.

            You used the word puritan in another comment. There may be a parallel of sorts here: in their first years in North America the Puritan settlers’ idea of a funeral was nothing more than a walk down a path and a quick spot of body disposal. In a relatively short time there was an almost complete volte-face to a structured service with audience participation, though not, of course, the doctrine they had left behind.

            Debate? I would like to hear a lot more from those regularly conducting non-religious funerals as to how they might perceive the coming together of a community who embrace a form of framework ideal.

      • Charles Cowling

        Tuesday 24th May 2016 at 8:29 pm

        If he was a miserable old sod who was the cause of unhappiness or emotional damage, I question the the purpose of airbrushing his misanthropy or misdeeds just because he’s dead. I certainly don’t question the appropriateness of a celebratory,or ‘harvest’, event in the case of decent person (most people are decent) who has expired at a great age. Such deaths normally mark a blessed release. A good innings leaves few regrets, for these are ‘little’ deaths or, in footballing terms, a tap-in for the Grim Reaper. Some deaths aren’t like this, though.

  4. Andrew Rush

    Monday 23rd May 2016 at 9:40 am

    If only Enid had written down what SHE wanted and made sure that as many people as possible knew…

  5. Saturday 21st May 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Clear case of funeral snobbery? He knows what is needed, woe betide you if you disagree.

    • Michael Jarvis

      Sunday 22nd May 2016 at 4:32 pm

      Surely one must accept that the whole point of an opinion piece (such as Mr Dakers’ article) is not to keep one’s counsel? He seems to hold views which would, I think, resonate with many of his age.

  6. Michael Jarvis

    Friday 20th May 2016 at 3:35 pm

    I hope for his sake that Mr Dakers does not find himself at one of the Godparents’ services featured in your blog post of May 2nd. He would probably have an apoplectic fit.

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