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!

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“Overcoming death” | DEATH matters - practical advice and philosophical speculations on death and dyingPerpetua's Gardengloriamundi Recent comment authors

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[…] 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 […]

Perpetua's Garden
Guest

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… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

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… Read more »

Perpetua's Garden
Guest

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.… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

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… Read more »