Charles Cowling

Why do people go to funerals? After all, the dead person won’t be there—not in spirit.

I always think, when I survey a crowd at a funeral, that these people are being as unselfish as people can possibly be—and what a very rare thing that is.

What’s the motivation? To be there for the dead person. To be there for their family. Ask them what they feel about the dead person. They say “She’ll be much missed.” Note the use of the passive tense. They don’t say “I’ll miss her very much.” Self-interest doesn’t come into it. Do they come looking for comfort? They will certainly be comforted if the funeral is any good: if it does justice to the dead person But no, they do not come looking for comfort. Comfort is an unlooked for by-product. They are not there for I.

I’ve read two accounts of funerals this week, both on this theme. Both of them were for people who were unsuccessful in a worldly sense, but just happened to be incredibly nice human beings. Both accounts give us grounds for believing that, however horrible the human race can be, people are essentially good.

The first is told by a funeral director. He concludes: The feeling of love that poured out of these people for him was immense. The recurring theme was that he truly loved everyone he came in contact with, and that the feeling was reciprocated by all he met … You see, you don’t have to be a well-known politician to have a positive affect on the lives of others. You don’t have to be magnate of industry or a famous actor to make the world a better place.

The second is told by journalist Matthew Parris. His conclusion: People do detect goodness in others. They do respond. Nobility of soul does find its echo from other souls. Was Thomas Gray, in his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, right to say that ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene/ The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear/ Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air?’ No. We speak carelessly of the ingratitude of others, and the loneliness of virtue; but I think that when in some way a person rings true, many can hear it and they respond.

3 thoughts on “Desert flowers

  1. Charles Cowling
    Perpetua's Garden

    Charles, I recently saw something amazing in Vancouver – a funeral procession of a thousand or more Sikhs, blocking a major roadway as they walked slowly behind the coffin to the cemetery. I talked to some of them and they were not all related, not even from the same village in Punjab. They were simply all part of the Sikh community and this was something that they wanted to attend, because their whole community was impacted by the loss of one of its members. Apparently these processions happened for every death in the community.

    I would say that people attend funerals above all from a sense of community. That can be felt, as the individual case may be, on the social level, on the familial, the religious, and also on the purely human, which must be the deepest. When community is lacking, there is no reason to attend a funeral – which can be interpreted as selfishness, but equally as passive isolation.

    When all levels of community have disappeared and the individual is left alone, it is no surprise that funerals are not well attended.

    Even if it is the case that religious and social and even familial connections have mostly disappeared, we still have the possibility of connecting on the deepest level, that of the family of mortal Man. In so doing, we would proceed straight to the most important level and could even dispense with the rest.

    This is the silver lining on the cape of nihilism – that we are able again to discover what is most important as a human being.


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Just caught up with this one, Charles, thanks for it.

    How our journeys of understanding about the Dismal Trade, and death itself, illumninate so much else!

    You make me think that ONLY when more people give more effort to at least trying to be the decent human beings that they can be, and stop worrying about accumulating more stuff and winning whatever it is they need to win,will we stand any chance of surviving as a species. Understanding our own mortality better can lead to such psychic changes, I think.

    There is a deep imperative about funeral attendance, I agree, and it’s a largely unselfish one.

    So: think more deeply about your own mortality, and you will find it easier to escape from the planet-busting, species-ruining hedonic cycle. Effective funerals are good for you, and for the rest of us.

    Phew! Think I’d better go and lie down, and leave you in peace – well, I don’t mean that sort of peace, I mean p and quiet…

    Charles Cowling
  3. The Good Funeral Guide – Who are they, what do they want?

    […] A good many folk trawl through the blog archive. Some posts are unaccountably and enduringly popular. Every day several people find Who cares? and Desert flowers. […]

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