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

11 thoughts on “Claire’s last word

  1. Charles Cowling

    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 thought their work was conventional, tired, boring, whatever. It is a difficult job, and as with any job I suppose, people are varyingly successful.

    I don’t know what’s good enough, but I do know it’s different every time, and like you I’m sure, that’s what I’m aiming at.

    But it’s easy to sound self-righteous about this stuff, so I’ll just clear off out of this debate for a bit and get on with a couple of funerals.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Claire Callender

    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 would be to fail them I think.
    I am hugely opposed to faith schools and the state visit by the pope and any opposition to these is welcome, and there are plenty of people who believe in a God who are opposed to these things. And as for everyone just ‘trying their best’ is that really good enough? As you say it’s about a life for a family.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Rather than humanists, perhaps the generic term ought to be bitsas. Bitsa this, bitsa that. Get wise: accessorize!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Mrs Ape, GM. Thank you for that brain-tickler.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    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 death. (They seem to think they’ll live for ever anyway, she added glumly..)

    The demand for non-religious funerals seems to be growing steadily, but maybe that supports your thesis! So the funerals “market” isn’t evaporating, or not yet, I’d say, but at the level of social action based on beliefs, i.e. the BHA rather than the humanist funerialists, maybe so.

    None shall ‘scape whipping, for sure,and “the humanists” is a fairly soggy category anyway. In terms of funeralists, there’s BHAs, ex-BHAs, never-BHA-but-kind-of-humanist-I-guess, just-non-religious- anything-goes, and so on. Don’t mind, as long as they’re honest.

    I should post on this rather than bunging up yer blog. Incidentally, no answers yet to my prizeless competition, “who invented a horrible American evangelist and her self-penned hymn ‘Ain’t No Flies On The Lamb of God?'” And no, the author wasn’t an atheist.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Too much generalising a bad thing, for sure. No grouping ‘scapes whipping.

    Is there, though, any truth in the theory that the humanist demographic is ageing and dying? Younger people reject such rationalism, preferring an eclectic, even incoherent, belief system which adopts spiritual views that suit them? This is the experience, I think, of green fuse. These are the people I was alluding to – the “I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven” brigade. If there’s anything in this, I speculate that humanists are experiencing an evaporating market. But what do I know? I simply lob this out for dispassionate comment/analysis.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    “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 see as dull, dry and boring “traditional” ceremonies – my own approach is to listen very carefully to what the family want, make suggestions, and then basically do what I’m told. Often, that’s fairly “traditional.” Mayvbe people find “traditional” reassuring.

    Might strike the aesthetically adventurous as boring, but it’s not supposed to be an entertaining diversion, is it, it’s supposed to be about a life, for a family.

    Judging by yours and Rupert’s comments on GFG, I’d expect your ceremonies to be far from dull and dry, but some ceremonies I’ve heard about sound pretty poor to me because an FD decides he (usually) can do it himself. It is just possible his motivation, unlike yours (no irony intended in that statement, I promise)is to trouser the fee – since he’s got to turn up anyway, might as well…

    Our training at least provides a filter, and a chance to compare notes and thoughts. You may not have needed that in order to succeed, but some clearly do.

    No doubt there are still some boring humanists, as there are no doubt boring vicars, rabbis and priests.I expect most of them are trying to do their best.

    I’m of to look for a red nose and some clown trousers.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Claire Callender

    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 started to take the services ourselves 10 years ago.
    As for the fact that seemingly two-thirds of Humanists don’t not believe ………. MC( much chuckling) the older persons LOL thank you Charles

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    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 join singing a hymn that the old sod always liked despite being an atheistical sinner: “There Ain’t No Flies on the Lamb of God.”
    (title courtesy of…?)

    It’s not what we will allow or not so much as whether they want a non-religious ceremony or not. It’s what they want, what they can do, and how we can or can’t help them to realise it.

    I’m interesteed in the way we get criticised for being dogmatic because we try to stick to a broadly non-religious, only-one-life ceremony – no-one seems to mind as much that a priest sticks “dogmaticallty” to his/her faith. You’d expect them to, wouldn’t you? What you wouldn’t expect them to do is to say “Oh, yes, I’ll do a non-religious ceremony” which in my mind = “after all who gives a fork about these things anyway?” And that’s nothing to do with business, territory so on.

    A family was told the other day by an FD that a vicar would do a non-religious funeral. Vicar (who I’ve met, nice lady) turns up and says that she can reduce the religious content but that there is a minimum of stuff about God she will need to say – fair enough, you’d expect it. The woman is, after all, a vicar, not really trained by the Church to deliver ceremonies from which her God is absent! So the family said no, FD panicked, sent for me (vicar was very nice about all this, incidentally)so I did the funeral. The morning following an afternoon phone call. So no pressure then…

    But Jonathan’s point strikes a chord with me – I think it’s a pity that so many humanists define themselves by what they don’t believe in, when since they don’t believe in it, what’s the point? They would do better to enjoy the output, as it were, of the Christian centuries (Tallis, Bach, Giotto and Notre Dame)Muslim buildings, Buddhist temples etc and go about their business.

    I’d raise my hand at Jonathan’s a question, but that’s because I’m a chronic non-joiner and I’d never heard of the BHA. I’m pleased there is a BHA to try to organise opposition for paying for the Pope’s visit out of our taxes, for example, or to question the role of faith schools. But as a soggy liberal, I just don’t find any zealotry useful nowadays.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

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

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    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 try and undermine its claim to validity by means of logic; a waste of their god-given time if ever I heard of one, as religion must surely be as irrelevant to the godless as would be the monetary currency used on some undiscovered inhabited planet to a stirling-collecting englishperson.)

    It’s worth recording that, when I was part of the Humanist network, I was at a BHA conference when we were asked for a show of hands of those who would NOT be a member of the Association but for the opportunity it afforded to conduct secular ceremonies. I was one of the two-thirds or so who raised a hand.

    Charles Cowling

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>