Charles Cowling

There are two ways of looking at it – aren’t there always? Either funerals, by loosening up, jettisoning the f-word and calling themselves celebrations of life, are becoming more meaningful, more expressive of what people want to express; or they have become merely conventions of gaudily-clad denialists engaged in an altogether silly and fruitless buck-u-uppo displacement activity.

Wherever the truth lies we have reached a pass – it’s a sign of progress – where certain folk are going to dig their heels in, wind back the clock and go for something retro.

Blogger Matt Archbold (thanks for this link, Pam Vetter) is a Catholic and he wants to restore the oft-dropped tradition of praying for souls in Purgatory (well, his soul, anyway). Active interventions by the living to ensure the wellbeing of their dead, practised to the max by the excellent Hmong, died out with the Churches’ downgrading of Purgatory and the Other Place. All sorts of theological reasons. They don’t seem to be consistent with a loving and merciful God, do they, Purgatory and Hell? As for Protestants, they are taught that salvation is down to whether or not you deserve it. No amount of cheering from the touchline can possibly sway a just and omniscient Supreme Being.

Archbold holds no truck with this revisionism: “Here’s what I want you guys to say at my funeral: Matt Archbold was fairly despicable at times. He was meaner than he was kind, proud of his humility, and not all that nice to his family or friends. Vain. Sarcastic. Selfish. While these may be qualities of a good blogger, they do not bode well for sainthood.

“We have no reason to suspect that Matt Archbold is in Heaven. In fact, I’d just about guarantee he’s not. If God in his infinite mercy somehow allowed Matthew to enter Purgatory it would be a reflection of His mercy rather than any attributes Matt evidenced throughout his life.

“Let us all assume, to be safe, that Matthew is in the bottom rung of Purgatory. Matthew’s fingernails are firmly dug into a cliff at the furthest edge of the Purgatory city limits and he’s hanging on there, his little feet dangling over Hell.

“And the only way you can get him out of there and nearer to Heaven is through your prayers. Pray now. Pray on the ride home. Pray when you get home. Pray. Pray. Pray for days, weeks, and years to come. Please pray.”


Sky News journalist Colin Brazier, who recently survived cancer, shares related retrogressive tastes in funerals:


“Do not go to Tesco and buy one of the supermarket’s tasteless In Sympathy cards. They come in a range of bright colours. Many of them display a lily – popular even before the death of Our Lady Of Versace – but even more so now.


“Do not buy one of the Hallmark cards which could easily be mistaken for an invitation to a child’s birthday party. Contrary to the message these cards are trying to communicate – death is actually grim, frequently bleak, and my (hopefully) grieving family will not be comforted by mass produced frivolity.


“Do not, if you are invited to my funeral, turn up wearing colours of a celebratory hue. I deplore the fashion for “wearing bright colours” – a trend in danger of becoming every bit as obligatory as the rigid absurdities of Victorian widow’s weeds were a century ago. There is nothing starchy and stuffy about wearing black. Dignified dark clothing is not an expression of despair. It is a way of stopping other people bathing in the attention which should be reserved for the deceased and his or her close family. I want my life to be remembered, not celebrated. I do not want my faults airbrushing from history.”

More Matt Archbold here.

More Colin Brazier here.

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Charles Cowling
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Very, very good point, Jonathan. So many FDs effectively stop up channels of creativity – and all in 20 minutes. By the time the celebrant gets to the family they’ve sort of shut down and can only think three pieces of music and the service sheet. I was talking to an FD the other day whose ‘classically trained’ colleague and friend had recently moved on. And what a difference. Though a lovely guy, c-t colleague’s early training had got into his DNA. “When he was with me,” said the FD, “every funeral was a hearse and one. Now I’m doing… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Jonathan, this comment just fizzes with the Right Stuff. Thanks.

“celebrating someone’s life doesn’t mean being happy at a funeral.” NB Co-op advertising managers.In fact NB all of us.

I’m heartened at the idea that we can re-invent the funeral which is planned entriely post-mortem, given the right FD. And, of course, the right celebrant for the occasion. Not just the one whose phone number the FD first alights upon. Even (maybe sometimes especially) if it’s me.

Jonathan
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Jonathan

Being in the midst of arranging three very demanding funerals, I haven’t the time to do this justice yet. But two points jump out at me. One is that celebrating someone’s life doesn’t mean being happy at a funeral. I conducted a ceremony for a drug addict who drank himself to death before the smack could get a proper look in, who had a bloody awful life being sexually abused in an orphan’s home and living off the dole and the dope. I said it how it was, and everyone told me how profoundly moved they were and how grateful… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest

Quite so, CB. The best are far, far better than people are aware; the worst are all sorts of bad. And the bereaved are all over the place!

Comfort Blanket
Guest
Comfort Blanket

Thanks Charles… Don’t get me wrong, there are some great FD’s out there and I applaud and support them. But sadly, some still deserve a raspberry…

Charles Cowling
Guest

Not a trace of a ramble, CB. You pin it down beautifully. To put in a word for the undertakers here, they are often accused of failing to move with the times. Actually, a great many of them spend much time puzzling over what consumers want. They’ve identified that some want green; some want a softer, prettier look (and a colourful coffin); some want either no religion or their own folk religion; some want no misery but, instead, defiant or joyous ‘celebration’. It’s all about choice, the undertakers have concluded – if it’s legal we’ll do it. But where’s it… Read more »

Comfort Blanket
Guest
Comfort Blanket

May I dip my toe in this fascinating pool of thought? Although I’ll have to make it brief because, to my frustration, I am too busy writing funeral services to spend any longed-for time thinking about how to make them so much better! Anyway, my thoughts are: • I sometimes find that people who dislike the idea of anything other than a traditional funeral, have only ever been to traditional funerals. • The word ‘celebrate’ can be taken to mean balloons, bubbly and bright clothes, when it’s really more true to its dictionary definition ie. to mark a significant event… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Wise words Charles, almost a summary, pulling together beautifully so much that has been puzzling me since I began this, er, lark. In so many cases, it’s too bloody late, when I meet them, to re-build a secular rite for our times, so I simply try to help them enrich the standard business. Whether that’s effective or not depends so much on each family, and the life they are saying goodbye to. That’s a tough burden for them, isn’t it? The established ritual pattern has fallen away, and if they aren’t able to look death in the eye, then they’ll… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

p.s. hadn’t heard the Luther quote before – excellent! Thanks.

gloria mundi
Guest

Vale, the last bit looks good to me. I’ve been presumptuous enough on occasion, when The Family has said “we don’t want it all mournful,” to say “well, it will, naturally, be a sad occasion, but we don’t have to make it gloomy. We will have a dignified ceremony for him, but that doesn’t mean it has to be stiff and starchy,” that kind of thing. I think Charles is right, many people don’t want kazoos and swanee whistles, they want something more restrained, whatever their beliefs, and they expect to grieve. We have to face the loss, however many… Read more »

Vale
Guest
Vale

Old Luther said humanity progressed like a drunk on a horse – first he falls off on one side and then on the other… I worry about this business of celebrating too. It smacks of party hats and gaiety, while, whatever the belief, it is a loss that is at the heart of every funeral. Funeral celebrations can feel like whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up. The post did make me reflect that I’d like to understand better what it is that people need from these ceremonies of departure. My job is to make no presupposition about… Read more »

Charles Cowling
Guest

Not pompous at all, GM. What you say is entirely justifiable and right; it’s not about polarities. But I wonder if there will be a reaction against the Celebration of Life. I mean, dressing a grave used to perfectly okay until those of unspeakable taste started to festoon theirs with all manner of grieving trash (I’m using a palette knife here). Do you see where I’m going? I think there may be a rebound in funerals, a move towards greater decorum — no to pink, that sort of thing. But what trendspotter ever spotted a trend ever?!

gloria mundi
Guest

Interesting as always Charles, and I particularly enjoyed Colin Brazier’s piece. But I beg to differ. I don’t there are two ways of looking at it, I think there are many ways of looking at the spectrum of possibilities. If I can just stop writing funeral scripts for a bit, I’ll have a crack at this over on me blog, but for now (and sorry if you’ve read this before from me)most funerals seem to me a mixture of celebration and mourning, of dignified proceedings and “personalised” bits and pieces. The polarising conecpt that they are either retro-religious or silly… Read more »