Shovel-and-shoulder work

Charles Cowling

The words that follow are by Thomas Lynch, a hero to so many of us in the UK. (In the US there are those who reckon him paternalistic, but we don’t need to go into that. It’s complicated.)

Funerals are about the living and the dead — the talk and the traffic between them … in the face of mortality we need to stand and look, watch and wonder, listen and remember … This is what we do funerals for — not only to dispose of our dead, but to bear witness to their lives and times among us, to affirm the difference their living and dying makes among kin and community, and to provide a vehicle for the healthy expression of grief and faith, hope and wonder. The value of a funeral proceeds neither from how much we spend nor from how little. A death in the family is an existential event, not only or entirely a medical, emotional, religious or retail one.

“An act of sacred community theater,” Thomas Long calls the funeral — this “transporting” of the dead from this life to the next. “We move them to a further shore. Everyone has a part in this drama.” Long — theologian, writer, thinker and minister — speaks about the need for “a sacred text, sacred community and sacred space,” to process the deaths of “sacred persons.” The dead get to the grave or fire or tomb while the living get to the edge of a life they must learn to live without those loved ones. The transport is ritual, ceremonial, an amalgam of metaphor and reality, image and imagination, process and procession, text and scene set, script and silence, witness and participation — theater, “sacred theater,” indeed.

“Once you put a dead body in the room, you can talk about anything,” Alan Ball [creator of the HBO show Six Feet Under] wrote to me once in a note.


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11 years ago

love the home funeral vid… LOVE IT.

Rupert Callender
11 years ago

Thanks Charles, was saving that episode of Six Feet Under for a rainy day. Talk about a spoiler…ah well, I suppose it did air several years ago, it’s not the six o clock football results.
Love the home funeral stuff. Sincerity. All you need.