I was interviewed the other day by Margaret Holloway of Hull University. She and her team are researching spirituality in modern funerals. Updates on their research were posted on their website, but they’ve mysteriously vanished.
She raised what seems to her to be the curious practice of conducting the committal or farewell in the present tense; what did I think? Well, I hadn’t really thought about it. Do I do it, too? Er, now I think of it, yes, I do. We talk to the dead person and say things – thank you, often enough; and goodbye, of course. And people call out, “See yer, mate!” “Go safe, my old son!” All sorts of things, they say.
I can see where she was coming from. Logically, it is bonkers to talk to a dead body as if it were in some way sentient. But logic has rarely troubled me. Intuitively, I have no problem at all. And no one has ever come up afterwards and disputed my tenses with me. Only Margaret.
Let’s not go into the problem of the symbolic role of the body at a funeral. Not today, anyway. Let’s just talk tenses. Time.
And I recalled what I’d read in Thomas Long’s excellent book, Accompany Them With Singing. It’s a marvellous thing. It’s a Christian text, but you don’t have to believe in God to embrace the truth of most of what he says. And he says this about time:
In rites of passage, even nonreligious ones, “real” time and ritual time are two different realities. Take, for example, the graduation ceremonies that are held every year on the campus where I teach. The soon-to-be-graduates put on funny-looking academic regalia, march to the ceremony, and when officials pronounce the magic words, everybody flips a tassel from one side of the cap to the other, and… Voila! People who were students one minute have become degree-holding graduates the next.
Now, all of us on the faculty know that this is not really the magic moment. These students actually become graduates, in a legal sense anyway, several days before when the faculty voted to grant them their degrees. The ritual simply acts out in ceremonial fashion what is already true about them, that they have made the transition from being not-graduates to being graduates. But even though the ceremony does not actually cause them to change status and become graduates, this does not mean that it amounts to nothing.
Real time and ritual time. I wish I’d had that concept objectified in my mind when Margaret called.