The purpose of a funeral is to express and reaffirm beliefs that make sense of a death in terms of, both, the tenets of the dead person and those of the living. We don’t see a lot of common purpose in an age in which faith has fragmented. All funerals alienate to a greater or lesser extent.
As a result, there is a move to make them less offensive, more inclusive. Secularists draw disparate mourners together by finding common ground: by focussing on the dead person and celebrating their life. Sorrow is tempered by joy. Where spirituality is addressed, it is with fondness rather than fervour. Heaven is envisioned not as an exclusive venue of staggering magnificence but, rather, a nice place for a picnic. Where such a ceremony is bland and euphemistic, we are indulgent. It is the price of compromise. Where there are football shirts on the coffin, banal poetry, Henry Scott Holland and mawkish or sniggermaking songs, we redouble our indulgence. We’ve all done the diversity training. We bite our tongues behind arranged smiles.
The secular funeral is an evolving rite. If it bungles sometimes, we should not be surprised.
The benchmark against which secularists measure its progress is, of course, the poor, bloody Christian funeral, a rite which has much to answer for, especially when conducted with the disengaged perfunctoriness for which it has achieved especial notoriety. For all that, we can only pity all those priests who have ever presided at funerals at which the congregation has glowered back at them with hollow, hostile eyes, alienated by the very liturgy that they had called upon the priest to deliver.
Christians, too, are now moving towards a more conciliatory, secular way of doing things. And this is the subject of a very interesting essay by Thomas G Long. “These newer practices,” he says, “are attractive mainly because they seem to offer relief from the cosmeticized, sentimental, impersonal and often costly funerals that developed in the 1950s, which were themselves parodies of authentic Christian rituals.” And yet, he says: “Contemporary Christian funeral practices certainly need to be changed, but change should be more a matter of recovery and reformation than innovation and improvisation.”
Christian funeral rites, he says, need to be ‘pristinised’. We note, here, that almost every innovation in funerals draws its inspiration from the past. But what is interesting about Professor Long’s analysis is that it is, I think, equally instructive to secularists.
He identifies three elements in a funeral: preparation, processional, burial. “The funeral itself was deemed to be the last phase of a lifelong journey toward God, and the faithful carried the deceased along the way to the place of final departure with singing and a mixture of grief and joyful hope.”
The metaphor of life as a journey collapsed in theological uncertainties. The result? “Dead Christians have nowhere to go but to evaporate into the spiritual ether and into our frail memory banks. With heaven domesticated, the soul morphed into an immortal gas, the corpse become a shell and the cemetery moved out of sight, it was almost inevitable that the dead with their embarrassing bodies would be banned from their own funerals and the living would be condemned to sit motionless, contemplating the meaning of it all and pretending to celebrate life as the nephew of the deceased sings ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’”
So like a secular funeral, yes?
He concludes: “Surely our culture will eventually weary of such liturgical and spiritual thinness and be ready for more depth, for more truth—for our sake and for the sake of those we love. When we are, the great drama of the journey to God will be there, beckoning us to join the procession of the saints. We will travel toward eternity with those we have loved, singing as we go and calling out to the distant shore in words of confident hope.”
It’s heady stuff, imbued with a sense of certainty unattainable by secularists with at best a fuzzy spirituality.
Yet the metaphor of life as a journey is just as strong and relevant to secularists, just as much of an inspiration, as is Professor Long’s metaphor of “the cosmic drama … of marching to the edge of eternity.”
Secular funerals are beginning to find words and music with which to celebrate a life and even expound a fuzzy spirituality. What they have yet to find is the actions, the rituals. But do they not, also, enact the cosmic drama of marching to the edge of eternity—even if that is an eternity of nonexistence?
Yes, they do. The element of processional is indispensable.
Read Professor Long’s essay in full here.