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.

14 thoughts on “Fogey funerals

  1. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    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 the arrangements I find we hardly ever use a lim at all, and probably not a hearse, either.”

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    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.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    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 for not airbrushing over it – his brother even palmed me a twentyer. OK, desperately sad and not a celebration in the same sense as a for life well-lived, but a celebration all the same in your definition, Comfort Blanket.

    The other point is that, being in the midst of three demanding funerals, I can attest to the fact that it’s very, very much down to the funeral director’s willingness to understand just what the family is going through, and a sense of getting it right for the family, and his/her willingness to go to the most ridiculously arduous lengths to find the right venue, the right celebrant, the right ritual and order and progression, to give advice that he knows will keep him up till midnight trying to arrange for the family or recommend a coffin manufacturer who’ll sell direct to the public, to inspire a grieving family who came to him just wanting to get it over with to create a congruent and veracious evocation of what and who we are letting go of, and the implicit and explicit meaning as witnessed by all of the senses of everyone present. And that it IS possible to reinvent the wheel in the five and twenty minutes we leave ourselves for ‘postmortem funeral planning’ (nice one, Charles), if you put your shoulder to it.

    But funeral directing is a business, alas, and the likes of me are not destined to prosper financially – however, I don’t want to lie on my death bed calculating the value of my life in pounds sterling. And every time I do a celebrant job for a tradtional undertaker, I get the eery feeling I’m doing a damage limitation exercise when it could have been so utterly fantastic.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    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!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    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
  6. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    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 all leading? The trick to selling goods and services is to purvey what people want before they know they want it. And the truth is that no one knows where it’s leading. Many/most of the bereaved have such low expectations of a funeral that they can hardly begin to define its purpose. Really good undertakers, like really good celebrants, can show some people sometimes how to make a good funeral; we all have great, great days at the crem. But mostly it remains very difficult to do a satisfying job for people who don’t know what they want; don’t know what a funeral is for. Most people do not live in the consciousness of mortality. Their lives are not informed by an integrated awareness of death. I’ll cross that bridge when I have to, they say. But the death of someone is not a bridge in the ordinary metaphorical sense; it’s something else altogether.

    Do we ditch the huge cars and the top hats, go for a contemporary look?

    Don’t think of it, mate; they’re all over the bloomin place.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    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 with a social gathering, to honour or praise publicly.
    • It’s not about ‘airbrushing faults’. Yes, sometimes we have to be tactful and leave things out, but we all know you never attach qualities to a person without some sort of relevant story or example. It’s about creating a true reflection of a person, in an appropriate, respectful way.
    • I do wish we could get away from trying to ‘pigeon hole’ funeral services, ie. religious or non-religious, traditional or party time. As Charles says, we need people to be thinking about death and funerals during their lives, not just for an hour during the arrangement at the Funeral Directors. So when it comes to deciding on what kind of funeral they want, they create something original, rather than choose a template to fit into.
    • Funerals have been the same for years and years and years and years. It seems to me (and you) we are still at the early stages of trying to question what they are for, how they should look and feel and sound. We are trying to evolve but in an incredibly slow-changing and sensitive arena. People realise they would like something a bit different but, as we all know, they are up against outmoded venues, some (not all) unimaginative and antiquated FD’s, and a fear of being seen as disrespectful if they do something a bit different.
    I think I feel the same as GM – things are better than they have been but not as good as they could be.
    Sorry – rambled a bit there and not sure I’ve added anything new to the buffet table of debate.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    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 probably get something no more than satisfactory. Which is not dishonest, like my father’s “Christian” funeral 30 years ago, and it’s better than nothing, but not as good as it could be, by a long way.Oh well, WTF, on we go. I’ve a funeral Friday. Let’s see what can be done.
    Thanks for this thread.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    No, I think you’re right, Vale. And you, too, GM. I always agree with you and normally learn something into the bargain.

    When people are just going through the motions, making the best of an invidious ordeal, something to be got behind them, it would be good to come over, frankly, paternalistic and tell them that whatever they say they want, this is what they need (as Rupert Callender expresses it). But it’s too late, we don’t know them well enough and some of us are not fuelled by a sense that we have any right to do so beyond, yes, er, shouldn’t we acknowledge the sadness we feel, too. I think the solution lies in people not slamming into death and being dazed by it, but instead proceeding in a considered way having thought about it steadily throughout their lives. Post mortem funeral planning simply doesn’t leave enough time to reinvent the wheel (which is what a secular funeral does). Why do we have funerals? Because we have to? No, there’s much more to it than that. But only mature death awareness can meet with death and still make some sort of considered sense of it notwithstanding.

    We meet our ‘families’ too late, I’m afraid. Part of our role is to educate? Yes, I think it is. Acknowledging always the peril therein of becoming paternalistic. Or downright pompous!

    What a great moment of Stevie relief that must have been, GM!

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

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

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    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 laughs there may be in with it.

    Despite the well-known chain’s best efforts to pasteurise the thing and do grief-lite for all at an unlite price, I think most people know in their hearts that it won’t do. But your point about makinhg no presuppositions is so true – and we have to make swift assessments when we meet the family, don’t we.

    Funeral recently, for a great character with lots of friends, exceptionally hospitable, parties etc. Lots of laughs. Her daughter said in the family meeting that there was another side to her, she was very down from time to time, and would I read the celebrated “Not Waving But Drowning,” right in the middle of the anecdotes. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop, and I reckon there was a lot of mental re-calibrating going on. The daughter really got it right, I felt. And we also had some real laughs.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    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 style or content, but I do wonder whether, with a better understanding, we should, however unobtrusively, help make sure these needs are being met.

    Hmm. Not sure about that last bit, but I’ll post anyway.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    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?!

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    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 death-denying “celebrations” is likely, I think, to lead us astray, as we seek to develop more profound funeral rites for people who don’t follow a religion. And I’d better leave it there before I get really pompous.

    Charles Cowling

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