Coherence vs incoherence

Charles Cowling

More resonances with Rupert Callender’s post in the latest Chester diocesan newsletter. In it, Bishop Peter Forster talks about funerals:

I have been thinking recently about funerals – not my own, particularly, although having just obtained my bus pass (and other welcome perks) in idle moments that has crossed my thoughts.

My mind has been concentrated by another experience, which is becoming more common: to go to a funeral, only to find that the cremation or burial has taken place earlier in the day, and the funeral has become a celebration of the deceased’s life.

Why does this jar with me so much?

He goes on to give his reasons, which, because they are consistent with Christian theology, would seem to me to be blameless

Firstly, it easily gives the impression that our bodies don’t matter much, that the essential ‘me’ is a disembodied soul or spirit … We are not spiritual chips off some cosmic block longing to return home: we are sacred individuals, made in God’s image, body, soul and spirit.

Secondly, these new funeral practices can seem to put death to one side, to ignore or even deny its reality. Some poems read at funerals give the same impression: ‘I have only slipped into the next room’, etc. Some music chosen at funerals likewise seems out of place, missing the proper solemnity which should mark the death of a child of God.

He concludes:

For Christians, death is an intrinsic part of life itself. We are baptised into the death of Christ, that we might live his risen life … so we should not evade the central place our death has in our journey to God … When we organise a funeral we set out liturgically to accompany the deceased on his or her journey to God. That’s why funerals are so important, and why the person, in the form of their body, should be part of the ritual itself. Only then will a funeral also become a witness to the resurrection.

Over at the Times a Christian journalist who is also an idiot has this to say in response:

The bishop can’t seriously be saying that a funeral without a body in the middle of it isn’t valid … What business is it of his as to how family and friends deal with their grief?

She concludes: The loss of a loved one is hard enough to bear without the Church chuntering about how you say your farewells.

Amazing. Perhaps the C of E has only itself to blame for this cake-and-eat-it sort of member. I don’t subscribe to the Bishop’s theology, but I am always ready to deplore any trend which seeks to make death bearable by trivialising it and turning it into a bit of a laugh.

7 thoughts on “Coherence vs incoherence

  1. Charles Cowling
    Paul Hensby

    As an atheist, my view of the arrogance of most religions is confirmed by the Bishop’s comment: ‘For Christians, death is an intrinsic part of life itself.’ All humans surely recognise death as an intrinsic part of life. Nor am I surprised by the pseudo-theological squabbling and insults.
    More valuable, I hope, are my interpretations of recent experiences.
    My squash friend, Everton, was killed three weeks ago in a road accident. He was a healthy, fit and vibrant man.
    I had no preparation for his death. Nor did his family, nor close friends. To trivialise his death by trying to celebrate his life, being positive, or ‘he’s gone to a better place’ nonsense would be an insult. The grief I am experiencing is amplified by the appalling sadness felt by his wife and two small sons.
    In this context I understand Jonathan’s moving comment, though I don’t think anybody close to Everton will be celebrating their grief.
    My mother died two years ago. She was 83, and had been ill for several years. Her body slowly shrank, her light gradually dimmed, her life left her not at once, but imperceptibly and irreversibly.
    And as her death was inevitable, so was the sadness felt by mother’s loved ones. I used this pre-death period to prepare myself and to grieve in shallower stages the better to deal with her passing when it duly came after three weeks in hospital when it was clear her deterioration was not going to be reversed.
    The funeral was a dreary CoE cut and paste affair, the local FD did an excellent job as our family’s ‘agent’…not difficult as it was exactly the same procedure as they had done for years earlier.
    Yet in a way, the inevitability of the funeral ritual was as reassuring as the inevitability of mother’s death. I knew what to expect, and that wasn’t a ‘celebration of life’ or being asked to turn up in colourful clothes and asked to write a little poem.
    Looking at it like this was my way of handling my grief as my mother’s time on earth was coming to an end, and finally ended.
    There was no real celebration of her life in the funeral…at the reception family and friends exchanged memories in an understandably downbeat way.
    For many months before her death (and sometimes now after it), I remembered mother and sometimes cried, sometimes smiled. I wanted her funeral over and done with, as I had said my own farewells, rehearsed and emotionally sanitised for weeks beforehand.
    In conclusion, we manage our grief in our own ways. When a life has run its full course it is easier to avoid the true pain of losing a loved one.
    To lose a loved one, or a dear close friend, suddenly and early in their lives is a far more difficult and terrible situation to address.
    See also my blog entries:

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Jonathan, I completely agree with Charles’s praise of your insights, especially the paragraph he quoted. And with your appreciation of this quiet, serious forum for discussion.

    Because the critical thing is distinguishing between that which is only your “accidental” (ie your useless dead husk) and your essential and, if anything can be, immortal nature. Without having this contrast presented to the senses and mind there can be no hope of being clear on this matter. One can then go on undisturbed in one’s pseudo-acceptance of death and “celebrate the life” alone.

    Cowardly, pathetic, pitiful death denial – where ever one’s eye falls, in a world which in fact teeters on the edge of the abyss, as all mortals things do.

    To be quite frank, I am optimistic that this situation will improve as death becomes more common through demographic effects.

    That this can only happen through immense suffering is not really relevent because it is unavoidable – suffering forms part of the human emotional budget and must be accounted for, one way or another, sooner or later. Life IS tragic and if we allow the debts of undealt with suffering to accumulate, they must eventually break the bank.

    See also my blog entry:

    Charles Cowling
  3. The Good Funeral Guide – The difference between you and it

    […] I think there’s a sentence in a comment Jonathan left on a recent post which will go the same way. The entire comment deserves another outing. If you missed it, enjoy and […]

  4. Charles Cowling

    Charles, by all means, and thank you for asking.

    One of the reasons I comment on your blog posts is that I know I’m going to be heard and understood here. There’s so much clamour about funerals – well, about everything in our communication-stuffed world, with everyone shouting to be heard above everyone else – that to find a little corner like this, out of the wind, where people are having quiet intelligent conversation to try and move things on rather than just manoeuvre them round to their own advantage is not only a treat, it’s nourishing to the soul.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    “So I want your useless, dead husk here with me when I put you – yes, you, even though I know it’s not you, it’s it – into a cremator or a hole so that I can begin to make sense of the difference between you and it.”

    Along with Gloria Mundi’s “a funeral is not an artefact”, this is the most significant thing I have read in ages. I gather GM is about to write something about the role of the body in funerals. I very much look forward to it. It seems to me that the more we think about it, betwen us, the more important we think it is. What a wonderful place the web is!

    Thank you for this, Jonathan. For all of it. It’s mindblowingly brilliant and marvellous. I have a fear that people may have missed it. May I publish it again as a separate post?

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    When I allowed myself to love you, and you me, we entered into an unspoken pact: that one of us would come to grieve the other, that it would be the worst possible experience to put a loved one through, yet we willingly agreed to do it to each other and to ourselves for the sake of our love. We may not have given it a moment’s thought, but we both knew, and we didn’t shy away from our inevitable pain then. So why do it now?

    Can you remember howling for lost love? Of course you can. So if someone offered you a painkiller, would you have taken it? I wouldn’t, because although grief hurts me worse than any physical pain it’s a pain I want. If I’m really honest with myself, I actually enjoy crying for the loss of someone whom I can’t bear the thought of living without. It’s the nearest thing to the comfort of physical contact with them I can find at that time. Don’t ask me why; it’s an animal thing as much as anything. But it’s your body I’m grieving for, as much as grieving for you. When I think of you, I see you still in it; all your dear characteristics expressed in its movements and gestures and sounds and appearances and and and… It’s how I came to even know of your existence, and how I came to love you. I still love you in your body – your dead body, yes, aren’t I foolish! – and now I’m going to have to love you out of it, and that’s a transition that doesn’t happen straight away. So I want your useless, dead husk here with me when I put you – yes, you, even though I know it’s not you, it’s it – into a cremator or a hole so that I can begin to make sense of the difference between you and it. That’s why I put on this funeral for you.

    So what’s wrong with a celebration of your life? Nothing. In fact it’s essential, unless it takes the place of mourning for your death. I’m celebrating even my pain of your loss because if it hadn’t been for you I’d have had nothing to lose, and no pain to tell me how fortunate I was to have had you in my life for the precious time we had together. I’m celebrating you to prolong the agony in a way, to be completely and unbearably aware of just what, just how much, I have lost because that’s all that makes sense of my grief.

    So yes, Charles, anything that trivializes or masks the agony of grief in the name of ‘celebration of life’ should be shot down in flames. It is a betrayal to celebrate you without railing against the dying of your light, or without shouting my anger at you for bloody well dying on me.

    And if I go first, I want it to hurt you just as much.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Ironic that the the “I’m not dead, I’ve just popped next door, talk to me as you always did, I didn’t really die” rubbish was actually written by a Christian clergyman, was it not? A Canon of St Paul’s, no less.

    That’s not written in any hostility, I’m with the good Bishop, although not sharing his theological beliefs – he’s right, seems to me, death is a part of life, a body does matter (my own views on this point have changed over recent months.)

    The journalist is indeed an idiot, because the Bish doesn’t say such funerals are not valid, he says they jar with him, and gives his reasons. If the way a Christian family deals with grief is not a matter of profound interest to their Bishop, and one hopes vice versa, then to whom is it a matter of interest? And isn’t it exactly the job of the church to chunter on about such matters?

    What is an alleged quality newspaper doing with such thin stuff? She’s bathing in the warm bath of religiosity that I tend to grumble about quite (or even too) frequently. If you’re a Christian, then for God’s sake (ha ha) be a Christian, respect and enjoy the authority of your clergy until and unless they prove themselves to be idiots.

    Charles Cowling

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