In his excellent book Accompany Them With Singing (read it before you die or I’ll kill you), Thomas G Long says this:
“When someone dies, Christians, like all other humans, look around at the immediate environment and ask: What do we have to do? What seems fitting to do? What do we believe we are summoned to do? In other words, Christian funeral practices emerge at the intersection of necessity, custom and conviction.”
What’s good for Christians is good for everyone, note. But I think I’d be inclined to reduce Long’s three to two: to just necessity and duty. What do we need to do? Get rid of this body, it’s going off. In the manner of doing it, what do we owe this person who has died? How should the funeral ceremony be, and what part ought we to play in it?
Engaging with necessity has to do with caring for the body, then disposing of it. Evaluating duty is much harder. If doing your duty is defined as doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said, what might you permit yourself to outsource to others and what ought you to definitely do yourself, however reluctantly, both in caring for your dead person and in farewelling them? And the reason why this question is important is because if, as a bereaved person, you are going to get anything meaningful and therapeutic out of the experience, you need to put something in, the more the better.
This is a matter I have explored, as a secular celebrant, with many families, and I’m not sure it has ever gone down well. By the time I get to them, of course, they’ve seen the funeral director, and the full-outsourcing option has embedded itself and, as a result, the point of the funeral has largely been lost. To have lots of people do everything for you because you can’t be expected to do any of it yourself is perilously attractive. Duty is consequently subsumed in self-absorption. “Would you,” I ask, “like to say a few words about Dad?” “Oh, don’t you do that?” they reply. “Who would Dad prefer?”
Instead of seeking comfort through cosseting, bereaved people need to put themselves out and earn their comfort. Never in the history of funerals have participants been so utterly passive as those at most of today’s vastly improved secular ceremonies. Even unbelievers at a religious ceremony have a more interactive time of it.
Is this how the bereaved see it? Not most of them. They have low or no expectations of a funeral. It’s an event not to be engaged with but endured. And so it is that the opportunity to grieve best at the best time for grieving is lost.
For a celebrant, the creation of a funeral ceremony ought to be an organic process, the product of several meetings. If all goes well, the outcome will be far more participation by the mourners than they ever expected: a good funeral. Do celebrants customarily brief funeral directors about the emotional state and evolving needs of their clients during this process? No. Do funeral directors customarily monitor their clients with a view to providing a better experience for them? No. So far as funeral directors are concerned, everything is set in stone at the arrangement meeting – when their clients are in the first shock of grief. They are not interested in evolving needs. Too much hassle.
This business of doing everything for the bereaved seems like kindness but isn’t. I’d like to see more funeral directors and more celebrants exploring with their clients and with each other not what they can do for their clients but what their clients can and ought to do for themselves.