What are funerals for?

Charles No Comments

By gum, you’ve got to feel a little sorry for Father Ed, haven’t you? Yes? Have you been following the hullabaloo? There he is one minute, letting off a bit of personal steam in his blog, as one does—and hark what discord follows. Sow a wind, reap a whirlwind. Press, radio and television, they’ve all gone berserk, done him to death. Result: cacophony. There’s no making any sense of the kneejerk hollering and hooting because most of it has been generated by ignorance of what he actually said. The truth will almost always get in the way of a good story. Do you remember when a howling mob of paedophile hunters surrounded the house of a paediatrician? It’s all got a bit like that.

Down at the British Humanist Association, Tana Wollen, Head of Ceremonies, seems not to have allowed truth to stand in the way of a good soundbite. “What a shame,” she says, “that this particular priest seems more concerned with his own feelings than allowing bereaved people a ceremony that reflects their beliefs and wishes and those of the loved ones they have lost.” No, Tana, no. Father Ed is pro-choice. What he actually says is: “Naturally there will be those who disagree with my beliefs; I think they should have the right to exercise this choice even though I believe them to be misguided.

We can sympathise with Tana if she was nettled by Father Ed’s assertion that “I am not, like the humanist, running a business and seeking financial gain from funerals.” You’re way off the mark there, Father Ed. The exchange of monies for post-mortem goods and services is a well established and perfectly respectable practice. For you, it comes in your stipend.

You don’t have to be a religionist to sympathise with any priest who, charged with conducting a funeral according to the rites of his or her sect, watches their words fall on empty or hostile eyes. To feel like a lemon under those circs is only human. Why do so many unbelievers ask for religious funerals? Yes, that is the question. And as Father Ed justifiably asks, “if this is your position, why invite me to the party? … If there is no desire for this Christian dimension then why have the priest?

For all that, it is easy to be enraged by the Church’s record in performing funerals. Father Ed and many of his ilk take pains, I’m sure, to do it properly. But too many funerals have been, and still are, perfunctory and impersonal, conducted by ministers who couldn’t give a damn. The C of E in particular has a case to answer.

Do we do funerals well in this country? It’s a good and important question, one at the heart of Father Ed’s ‘rant’. He says: “I was actually seeking to raise a question which is important for all society – what are funerals for?”

It’s a question we need to ask ourselves all the time. It’s Father Ed’s beef that “Christian prayers of ‘commendation and committal’ are not mere aesthetic choices in a market place of funeral options.” In other words, he doesn’t like being used merely as a nice funeral venue that knows how to put on a nice show. And yet his Church (if not his church) is happy enough to indulge those who wish to use its photogenic buildings and genial rites for nice weddings.

Thomas Friese’s response to Father Ed is, I think, spot on: “We may deeply lament the fact that such superficial attention is given in our society to such an important transition and sincerely believe we know better. But if that is so, then it is up to us to convince others of its importance.”

Yes. What are funerals for? Let’s keep asking ourselves that, urgently. Thank you for getting them talking, Father Ed. You’re a prop forward, so you must have broad shoulders. You’ll be needing them in the peace-shattered aftermath of your unsuspecting little blog post.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments