Claire’s last word

Charles Cowling

Everyone looks at other people differently according to what they do. Hairdressers scan your hair, dentists your teeth, snobs your shoes… Undertakers? Why, they measure you for your coffin of course.

Surveying a funeral, the preoccupations of an undertaker are quite different from those of anybody else. Ordinary folk take in the procession, the flowers, the demeanour of the close family (grief bravely borne if they’re doing it by the script). But undertakers want to know who got it – who got the job. Their beady eyes home in on the registration plate of the hearse and decode the letters. Ah, CDF 1, Change and Decay Funeral Service (dignity assured, Daimler fleet, open 24 hours). They scrutinise the demeanour of the conductor (that watch chain’s a bit over the top), they log the condition and cleanliness of the cars and the aspect of the bearers. Who supplied that coffin? One of Wainman’s?

It is from this viewpoint that they will regard the funeral of lovely Claire Rayner, who died on Monday. As the chair of the Co-operative Funeralcare Forum (2002) Claire abetted this admirable organisation in its mission to bring about a “major shake-up in the UK’s funeral provision” and meet the “need for more information to help people make every funeral special.” So will she go with Co-operative Funeralcare? Why not?

What could possibly go wrong?

Claire was also a president of the British Humanist Association. It’s no surprise, then, that she will have a humanist farewell ceremony. This may pose a problem for the celebrant (if they use one), a problem which is becoming increasingly common. Humanist celebrants have, most of them, always gently outlawed hymns from funerals. Now they’ve got a new ontological problem with their clients. For though they may profess themselves to be hardened atheists, they later reveal a fuzzy belief in an afterlife of some sort, a freestanding heaven where no one’s in charge, a cake-and-eat-it sort of a place. Atheists are not the rigorous (left-leaning, often puritanical in the best sense) rationalists they used to be. They just don’t like, I don’t know, authority figures?

Whatever, Claire, who revealed a capacity for inconsistency when, as a lifelong republican she accepted an OBE, uttered these last words:  “Tell David Cameron that if he screws up my beloved NHS I’ll come back and bloody haunt him.”

Only joking, for sure. But Claire, I hope you will.

Thanks to Tony Piper for popping these mischievous thoughts into my head

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gloriamundiClaire CallendercharlesJonathan Recent comment authors

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gloriamundi
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gloriamundi

Claire,I don’t know if a ceremony of mine would be excellent – it’s kind of you to say so – but my invitation, though sincerely meant, was a bit unrealistic, as you and Rupert are many – hundreds, I think – of miles away. Thanks for your response. “Just trying their best” – the “just” is yours. What I meant to suggest was that I guess, or I hope, that most of the boring people are trying to do the best they can, i.e. they are not being dishonest. I wouldn’t want to impugn the sincerity of others because I… Read more »

Claire Callender
Guest

Dear Gloriamundi, yes I would love to come to one of your ceremonies and I feel sure it would be excellent, as would one of Charles’s and Johnathan’s. Let me be clear I am simply talking about MY experience of humanist celebrants. When I say dry, dull and boring I am refering to the language and tired old metephors they used. Lets hope I have just been unlucky. I have no problem with ‘traditional’. Over the years our ceremonies have become more and more stripped back, for us it’s about shared truth. We try not to divert them entertainingly that… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

Interesting idea, Charles. Summer music festivals certainly suggest the availability of beliefs – or maybe just attitudes – which are eclectic, and maybe draw on elements of paganism, neweco nature worship, a (wildly inaccurate, no doubt) version of Celtic Christianity, sort of Indian stuff and of course “Zen” (which to my irritation is rapidly coming to mean “cool” = “generally nice.”) Maybe for many of them this stuff is a life-style choice, decorative sort of thing, an escape from 9-5,(nowt wrong with that!) rather than a set of beliefs, hopes and attitudes to which one cleaves in the face of… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

“No need for humanists” – you’re OK with the growth of faith schools, the Pope’s visit, the unaltered question about religion in the census, and all the other things the BHAS bangs on about? A decent humanist ceremony is supposed to be exactly about the person who’s died and his/her family, so yes, it seems you were very unlucky. Maybe you’d like to come to a ceremony I’ve helped with, and see if you find it dull and boring? I’m aware that some people around the GFG table sometimes seem to suggest we should direct families away from what they… Read more »

Claire Callender
Guest

When the Church poked it’s nose into every area of our lives and told us how to live it, the Humanists were a very welcome much needed organised opposition to them. As the Church’s influence has waned so has the need for the Humanists. My own personal problem with them is that the humanist services we have had have been dull, dry, boring affairs which had little to do with the family or the person who had died, which I find hard to forgive. But maybe we have been unlucky with our Humanists. It was precisely because of this we… Read more »

gloriamundi
Guest
gloriamundi

Interested in the idea that humanists are atheists who have a fuzzy belief in a have-your-cake-and-eat-it leaderless heaven – not the ones I know, and not me, though plenty of us are also not hardened /aggressive/dogmatic atheists beloved of those who like to polarize people and their viewpoints. Ther’s a lot of to and fro amongst BHA celebrants as to whether we “should” include a hymn or a prayer – the usual compromise position is to make it plain you are concluding the non-religious ceremony and then say that the family, or Auntie Doris, or whoever, would like to you… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Postscript: my son just received a text proclaiming “Conservatives put the ‘n’ in ‘cuts’.” Sorry to hear you’re dead by the way, Claire.

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

To be fair to the Humanists; by no means all of them are atheists or have an ontological problem about the nature of being with their client families. I know several who are quite happy to ‘include’ a hymn or a prayer, even an allusion to the possibility that life-force is not a mere bi-product of cellular activity, at least as an add-on if not as an integral part of a ceremony. (To be less uncritical about them, many Humanists use their association to bolster their own disenchantment with religion, and spend a lot of time in rational debate to… Read more »