The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away

Charles 10 Comments

Here’s an extract from the blog of a religious minister (clerk in holy orders, he terms himself). I like his rigour. Very bracing.

You wouldn’t expect me to enjoy humanist funeral services very much. Perhaps ‘enjoyment’ isn’t the right word for funerals anyway, but you know what I mean. I’ve been to a couple and always find them ‘thin’ compared to Christian funerals … But what I most dislike came in front of me on Wednesday. That afternoon I took a funeral service at the crematorium and noticed a folder on the table where I was putting my things. This turned out to be the notes left by the officiant at a humanist funeral earlier in the day. Usually humanist funerals spend the vast bulk of their time waxing lyrical about the heroic achievements of the deceased, but there was no trace of a biography in the notes, so I assume somebody else had read a tribute or something of that sort. Instead there was a passage from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and some heartwarming statements along the following lines.

For those of us who hold that the individual life concludes with death, it is nevertheless not the end … Arnold may be gone, but he lives on in your memories.

It is nevertheless not the end? Yes it is … As for Arnold ‘living on’ in his loved ones’ memories, no he doesn’t. They may have memories of him, but those memories are not ‘him living’, they’re a set of synaptic responses in the brains of those who shared some aspect of his life when it was a life which will themselves decay and come to an end.

What we have here is an attempt to accommodate through linguistic sleight-of-hand what the officiant believes, or doesn’t believe, with the perceived need to comfort Arnold’s family and friends with the thought that in some way he ‘lives on’. Shouldn’t atheists be brave enough to combat this weak-mindedness? Or perhaps it doesn’t really matter?

Read the entire post here.


  1. Charles

    I like him or her, too. I find it embarrassing to hear a congregation of mourners being fobbed off with that old platitude of ‘living on in your memory’, or having a ‘kind of’ immortality. Immortal means forever, not a moment less, and Weepingcross eloquently explains precisely why. Atheists conducting funerals are not ‘not brave enough to combat this weak-mindedness’; they’re simply aware that they wouldn’t get any more work if they said what they profess to actually believe, tempted as they evidently are – as I’ve just discovered, having had to pitch in at the last minute to cover for a humanist celebrant who made such a bad job of concealing his need to proselytize that the family sacked him.

    But it’s a bit rich to say humanist funerals are thin compared to christian ones. Embarrassment gives way to ennui when I hear a vicar droning on from some dreary christian text that sounds to me as poetic and meaningful as next year’s spending forecast for an obscure government department – try as I might, I simply can’t concentrate hard enough to understand what the hell he’s talking about.

  2. Charles

    The word “some” can be useful in this context, can’t it? Though not, of course, as entertaining as a cheap shot such as:

    “Usually humanist funerals spend the vast bulk of their time waxing lyrical about the heroic achievements of the deceased.”

    I don’t find this rigorous in the least, simply because it bears no relationship to the kind of tributes that the humanists I know actually write. Unless they are writing about a hero. Infrequent, but has happened.

    That’s where “some” might come in handy – but it’s so tedious, isn’t it, to keep saying that some vicars are A, some humanists are B, rather than stretching out with a good old generalisation for the sake of a bit of self-reassurance, a nice bit of easy rhetoric. Perhaps all pulpits corrupt, and absolutist pulpits corrupt absolutely, whether secular or sanctified.

    Might it just be that some humanists actually think it’s reasonable – comforting, and not a falsehood- to point out that my memories of someone I’ve lost do actually stay on with me as part of my life; that the meaning of someone’s life doesn’t stay on the catafalque with the body when the mourners leave the crem, but leaves with them?

    Might it just be that I, and those humanists I know (a small circle it’s true)try to offer some meanings that come straight from what we believe, and if we were to lose work because of those beliefs, then too f***ing bad?

    Of course, these things (what we are or are not left with after someone dies) are very difficult to write about, and it’s too easy, I guess, to make a bad mistake such as talking about the “immortality” of our memories of someone rather than merely pointing out that as long as we live and hold on to our memories, then we will have those precious memories in our lives.

    Or – sorry, am I not being a brave enough atheist? Am I bending my ideas to fit what the FD thinks, or to work my own beliefs into what is said, at the family’s expense?

    I’m pleased the family sacked the celebrant who didn’t measure up. I hope families sack vicars who don’t measure up.

    Do you know, apart from personally encouraging words from a couple of people, which I value very much, I don’t think I’ve read a word, on this blog and its comments, in favour of humanists, in particular or in general. What a handy whipping boy we are for those with an axe to grind.

    But how odd, then, that we do get very encouraging feedback from people – no, not just outside on the so-called “flower terrace” when they may be, as some have patronisingly argued, easily pleased, but in letters and cards and emails a week or two or three later.

    Must be that our hypocrital cowardly proselytising rhetoric has bamboozled them all. It’s a gift. Not everyone has it. I mean, perish the thought that these people actually know what they want and are pleased when they find it – they really should contact those who know better than they do what suits them.

    Ah, screw it. Suit yourselves, as Frankie Howard used to say. I really don’t know why I find this stuff discouraging and upsetting. I don’t have to read it, and you don’t have to read this.

    Merry Christmas.

  3. Charles

    Four years ago a friend of mine, in her forties, died after a long and very painful time with cancer. She died horribly, bloated and unable to swallow. Her husband and four children were with her. Her eldest daughter had recently married young and was newly pregnant.
    Eighteen months earlier my friend and I were out one evening and she was telling me that she couldn’t die because she was sure she would have grandchildren and she would need to be there to rock them.
    Following her funeral at the crem we all went to her (Evangelical) church for another service. At that service her brother spoke and included these words: “If you do not share this faith I would not know how to console you”
    Therefore I was, and remain, inconsolable.

    I am so grateful that over the last year I have found out about secular celebrants. Thank goodness for them, both Humanist and the “mish-mashists”, for being able to find words to console those without that kind of faith.

    In particular, thank goodness for those Humanists of the calibre of GM, who care about the impact they make but also do not condemn those who do the best they can within the context of their own beliefs.

    Shame on you Mr Cowling, this post is nothing more than the repetition of a blinkered, even if passionately held, view. I know that you seek to provoke but repeating the text of the “weepingcross’” blog, it seems to me, is akin to repeating hurtful gossip.
    Please don’t discourage those of good intent – this world really needs them.

  4. Charles

    Autumn Leaves, this blog holds up a mirror to what’s going on and who’s saying what. Let a thousand flowers bloom, that’s my motto. Please do not shoot the mirror-holder. No, scrub that, fire away.

  5. Charles

    Thank you, Autumn Leaves, I very much appreciate what you have written – but Charles is actually doing his job. After all, he has drawn comments from the two of us, which would not otherwise have happened, comments which we both value! And I am encouraged onwards by what you’ve written.

    So no, Charles, none of us should shoot the mirror-holder. In any case, I am hopelessly thin-skinned; I need to get things off my chest, and then move on. So I’m not, fundamentally, discouraged, I just get a bit shrill for a short while!

    More importantly – how sad, painful for you, that your friend’s brother could find no words of consolation because you didn’t share his faith. I’m fond (too fond, perhaps!) of quoting this, from the Dalai Lama:

    “Whether one believes in a religion or not and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion.”

    That seems to me as close as I can get to a universal multi/nonfaith truth, in such circumstances.

    I do hope, somehow, you find some consolation for your friend’s loss.

    I shan’t forget your words of support.

    Charles, get polishing that mirror please….

  6. Charles

    Well in this brave new world of Wikileaks and the Telegraph we seem to be in an age where we relish having what must often be thought, but rarely said out loud, confirmed.

    My first reaction is that it seems charmless to riffle through someone else’s papers and graceless to sneer about what you have uncovered afterwards.

    My second is that even the religious these days struggle to be confident about the future that awaits us after death – if he imagines that at least some of his congregation are not also using his high words of hope and faith as some sort of wish fulfilment he is being very naive. 

    My third is that we do need to be careful about what we say. Celebrants should not offer false coin, not just because we know it is not true, but because the people who listen to us will know it isn’t true as well and the comfort, if any, will be lessened. 

    More than anything else though, I feel sad that this cleric can only see comfort in the possibility of a future life. This seems to me to be as much a clutching at straws as any humanist promise of lasting memory, with far less certainty of comfort at the end. At least I know I have memories, the stories I can share and friends and family to share them with. And what do any of us know about eternal or everlasting?

    Final thought in this long ramble: there is a lot of tosh about – bad English and ill thought out words of comfort. We do share good readings and good music – I’d like to see more sharing of the liturgies we are creating as well. Maybe a sort of Wiki-liturgy where words and phrases can be tossed around, polished and rubbed smooth for both meaning and beauty.

  7. Charles

    Salve, Vale (I assume you pronounce yourself ‘Vah-lay’? There is much in what you identify as this cleric’s wishful thinking (arrogance some might say), for all that he is strictly correct in saying that, for all that we call the dead to mind, that which there is to remember stops at death. But it’s a quibble. Commemoration is more than just a comfort option. It’s also a duty. Further, to ask oneself what she would have done, what he would have thought, what she would have said, brings a dead person into the present and accords them due value. Example and values live on, not just the ‘do you remember the time’ things. It is much more than sentimentality to maintain a relationship with our dead. We owe it to them — and ourselves.

    I have to say it, I am right with you, Vale, in what you say about bad English and ill-thinking. There is too much blah-blah nice noise going on — and not nearly enough sharing. I LOVE your image of words and phrases polished and rubbed smooth — because that’s what we do, isn’t it? Yup, Wikilit. Who’s going to do it?

  8. Charles

    Sorry I’m so late to the party – I’ve been away from cyberspace for a while. Interesting post,as always and interesting comments too.

    Just before Christmas, I attended a family funeral, conducted by a perfectly nice and reasonable vicar who did a fine job. But as we left, I said to the long suffering one that it felt a bit “shallow” to me. And it appears that the man of the cloth who wrote the original post felt the same way about what he read.

    Perhaps the problem is that he finds meaning in his faith, and I find meaning in what I think, so hearing a contrary view leaves us a bit cold? It doesn’t strike a chord with us, because it’s saying something that we have given thought to and, personally, rejected. That doesn’t mean that either of us is right or wrong, just that we’ve found our own rules to live by.

    As for living in people’s memories. Well, perhaps we do, in a weird way. “Aunt Mabel would have that new song”? In one sense (and possibly a mistaken one, she may have hated it), Aunty Mabel does live on as we take our experience of them through life with us. No, they are not still living with us in any real sense, but we are still partially living with them.

    Sorry – coherence is not my strong point today (what were we saying about good writing?). I think that the point I’m trying to make is to back up Gloria. Some vicars are good, some are awful, same with humanist celebrants, civils, mish-mashers and independents. The bad ones should be sacked and complained about.

    The good ones have the happy knack of being able to strike a chord with those who are listening to what they say. And that can depend as much on the collection of receivers as the giver.

  9. Charles

    Hi, I would like to use the image of the dying flowers for my GCSE project. The image will not be printed and will only be seen by my teacher.


Leave a Reply

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