Charles Cowling

Throughout Funeralland, bothered undertakers, exasperated priests, weathervane secular celebrants, opportunistic accessorisers and furrow-browed academics are inserting their fingers into their mouths, holding them aloft, seeking to determine where the wind of change is blowing from.

Funeral consumers give them little to go on. They don’t talk about funerals until they have to arrange one. When they do they evince all manner of contradictoriness, their funeral ceremonies all manner of incoherence and half-bakedness. They allow themselves to be guided by funeral directors in most ceremonial respects – hearse, lims, bearers, the customary palaver – then subvert the contrived decorum by wearing football shirts and playing rude music. Acquiescence gives way to assertiveness. For funeral directors the job is becoming one of control and surrender. Unsatisfactorily so. By a malign conjuring trick the Master of Ceremonies is turned into a wallflower, the twit who turned up in the wrong fancy dress.

Funeral futurists scan the horizon with powerful binoculars, babbling about baby boomers. Funeral directors agonise over how to market themselves. Only the pre-need planners are stuck in Groundhog Day, selling the funeral equivalent of this year’s Punto, the very same model, in 10, 20, 50 years’ time. Wake up, chaps, we won’t have 2010 Puntos in 5, let alone 50 years’ time. We probably won’t have internal combustion engines.

People buy these plans, though. My (underworked) financial adviser recently announced that she has just bought a Co-op plan. Terribly proud of it. I bit my lip. All the way through.

The horizon is no place to find the future. Where to look, then? Children at pantomimes have the answer. “Behind you!!”

Today’s incoherent funerals are the product of a people who know they don’t want any more of the time-honoured bleak-and-meaningless. That’s why they’ve substituted the f-word with ‘celebration’. Even though they’re feeling sad. But break free as they try, they dangle all manner of cultural baggage. It is this baggage which the futurists need to identify and evaluate.

Much of this baggage is the legacy of history and culture. Part of it may be DNA. Celts do things differently. So do immigrant communities. Englishness is being altered by multiculturalism. How?

A pervasive propensity of the English is to find the funny side of everything. Even death. Especially death. It blunts the sting, sticks up the finger, turns the grave’s victory into a booby prize. This is a culture which will not keep humour in its place.

I don’t know that playing a risqué song at a funeral actually makes anyone feel any better, though it may have a certain cathartic fuck-you value. But I suspect that those who can offer the bereaved informed and intelligent guidance as to how they might most usefully incorporate humour into their farewell ceremonies will serve a very valuable purpose.

Not just the bereaved, either. All of us. How is it done? Where does it belong? Tell us, please!

5 thoughts on “Sad ha ha

  1. “Overcoming death” | DEATH matters - practical advice and philosophical speculations on death and dying

    […] to suit your character and gracefully return your remains to the elements. FROM OTHER BLOGSSad ha haThe Good Funeral GuideOur Review: WHAT INDEED DO WE WANT?Throughout Funeralland, bothered […]

  2. Charles Cowling
    Perpetua's Garden

    Dear Gloria,

    Thanks for your reflections! May I respond….

    In my comments above I was talking about overcoming death itself – not our fear of it.

    For the vast majority, claiming to have overcome the fear of it would be a pure lie. If we could fully understand our mortality and had no compensating real or imaginary escape route, we would go mad with the torment, the futility of it all. To save ourselves, we invent (or are given?) religions or we pretend we don’t care and “party on”, or we become “existentialists” and “atheists” (which are forms of belief meriting the label of escapism as much as religious beliefs do.) All of this cannot be proved or disproved.

    But we should never think that to genuinely accept or understand our mortality would be to overcome the fear of it. It might lead to a more inspired living, but the fear of the end would remain.

    Because Death SHOULD be feared, it IS a traumatic passage, if not an absolute end. That is precisely the problem with our world, which pretends not to fear it but is secretly dead-scared. Lack of self-honesty. Once we have admitted our impotence in Death’s face, we can begin sincerely looking or praying for ways of “overcoming” it.

    Naturally I am not talking of overcoming death on the physical plane, but rather through art, or rather the religious beliefs that are art’s sublimest creation. (Those who believe in cryogenics and company are, with the little respect due to them, fools.)

    But the physical impossibility of defeating death does not mean that death cannot be effectively defeated in other ways. God may be dead, as Nietzsche correctly said, but that does not mean we can’t give birth to new gods, to new beliefs. That has always been the case – God has died more than once in human history.

    Which brings us to culture. What we have now is the equivalent of a clear-cut forest. The ancient old trees that grew and matured over centuries have been chopped down or blown over, their time is over, after all, EVERYTHING is mortal.

    What remains is a ragged clearing, with lots of dead and rotting debris from the past, here and there weeds growing up among the dead wood, and some seedlings of a new generation of trees. But we should be honest and not kid ourselves that these weeds, even with their often pretty flowers, are roses, nor that the seedlings are yet wise old trees. They may become that, but they are not yet that.

    This is universally true. This clearcut extends right back to the mountains of Tibet. While “new solutions” may be regional, this leveling of the world’s culture is a universal phenomenon, normally called globalization. It cannot be avoided, so be it – but now it is time to reinvent the wheel.

    Finally, regarding atheists: in my twenties, during my scientific studies I also tended to a disbelief in anything not empirically provable, though I came from a Catholic family. I have not become a Catholic again since then, but I do understand the atheist point of view from the inside as it were.

    As I once said, I would rather have a conversation with an introspective atheist than a true believer of any shade. The important thing is that the questioning cannot stop. And Death, as the insoluble question par excellence, is thus a very important subject.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    It seems to me that we certainly need to “rediscover” mortality, which I take to mean that we have to deal rather better with the fact that we will die, and allow that true understanding to enrich our lives.

    But for me, one of the things we have to do is not to think that we can “overcome” our mortality – unless Thomas means overcome our dread of it and our tendency to hide it, in which case – absolutely.

    Yes, I think it needs to be an inspired process, with a lot of “prophets” rather than just one, and yes, I think it will happen. But I really don’t think culture is disappearing – it doesn’t need to for our common humanity to become more apparent, and in fact it can’t, seems to me, because local ways of living will always differ (climate, kinds of work, family conventions, etc etc) We aren’t all living in a mainstream American culture if we wear Nike and drink Coke.

    I don’t believe we’ll find one unversally right way of relating to mortality and burying/cremating the dead. I have to find the right way with family A and then next week with family B. They’re all Brits…but the cultural differences are immediately perceivable, and need responding to.

    And actually, I think for a lot of Brits humour is pretty close to a food.

    Last point of difference – I do read a lot of stuff from people who quite clearly think they know what it is that lurks in the hearts of atheists and existentialists, if only they were aware of it. Well, of course we all want more, but I believe you can only explore an individual’s psychology of belief with that person, not by generalising from a distance about what they really feel, if only they knew it. Don’t mean this to sound combative, hope you see what I mean.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Perpetua's Garden

    Dear Charles,

    The answer is indeed that no-one consciously knows what they want. But they probably have very good intuition for it, and will respond enthusiastically when offered the right thing.

    It is up to the service providers to divine this, not the “consumers”. They need to find what has always and will always be meaningful in terms of end-of-life rituals. For as much as Celts may differ from immigrants, Egyptians from Etruscans through cultural legacies, there must be a simply-human commonality that persists through time and across space.

    I call it knowing that we are mortal and wanting more. This is universal, in it we are all alike, regardless of cultural legacy and even DNA. It even hides in the most devote atheists and existentialists, though they may not be aware of it.

    In a globalizing world, where genuine cultural differences are disappearing, it is increasingly likely that “the right new way” of dealing with death will work, with minor local adjustments, for everyone on the planet. Our common humanity is more apparent than ever, as culture disappears. Our common mortality will soon be made more apparent to us.

    It is quite clear to me that finding this “right new way” means that mortality first has to be rediscovered; then new metaphors of hope for overcoming it have to be provided. Only that will genuinely satisfy, as has always been the case. This will happen, I am certain of it.

    The only question is who will supply these new metaphors of hope. This has to be a genuine, inspired process; it cannot come from clever marketers, unless one of them happens to also be a prophet in disguise.

    (By the way, humor can always be added as a local spice to the English variation of a universal new way. It may please the local palate, but it is not in itself the food.)

    Thomas Friese

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Exceptionally good post, Charles, we should all think on’t. Thanks.

    Recently, I’ve heard “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and “When I’m Cleaning Windows” being used for the effects you describe (rather than purely out of desperation.)

    Our guidance in this, as in other matters, is often much valued, though equally often people have very fixed ideas about music. I think sometimes they choose music because “he loved it” which is fine, but perhaps a bit more exploration of how it will actually work in the funeral event is important.

    As in all these areas, it’s the speed and sensitivity with which a minister (ha!)can interpret and identify unique circumstances and feelings, and guide and inform the family, that is important. We have to help them dissolve the numbness for a couple of hours so we can together find the humour and the tragedy that will stop them retreating behind the bland event, an event which may, I suspect, sometimes leave them wishing it had been more profound in its release and goodbye. But they never tell you that.

    I’ve learned so much from families who are ahead of me in this exploration.

    Bobby McFerrin – that’s a good idea…

    Charles Cowling

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