Laughing it off

Charles Cowling

I’m not supposed to be here (see previous post) but I can’t resist abandoning packing my water wings for a moment in order to give vent to what may or may not be justified crossness.

Funerals have, by many people who ought to know better, been subjected to a reductio ad absurdum: three songs and a piss-up. It’s Grief Bypass therapy, and I’ve capped those words because so many people are peddling it. It seeks to make death manageable by trivialising it — it seems to me.

Given that funerals are about people and loss — people who may have been adored, reviled or anything in between; loss that is vast — you’d think that people would have to be emotionally retarded to fall for it. Joanna Yeates’s parents didn’t. But Co-operative Funeralcare’s marketing people seem to have shown that you can never go wrong by underestimating the taste of the British public. And now the Dying Matters Coalition is joining in.

Dying Matters, funded by taxpayers’ money and charged with getting people to confront end-of-life issues, has already given birth to A Party for Kath. Now it has published a web page titled Alternative Funeral Songs. It regurgitates a survey by the Children’s Society (search me) of favourite funeral songs and lists the top ten alternatives, too boring to relate. It goes on to say:

Here at Dying Matters we have a few suggestions of our own. How about: ‘Bat Out of Hell’, Meatloaf; ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, Queen; ‘Highway to Hell’, AC/DC; ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’, Bob Dylan; ‘Reach for the Stars’, S Club 7; and ‘Dancing On Your Grave’, Motorhead.

Have you chosen an off-the-wall track for your funeral? Let Dying Matters know by emailing We will, of course, retain your anonymity unless you tell us you are happy for us to use your name.

Ha ha ha. Haven’t we heard this all before?

I’ve been the celebrant at a funeral which concluded with everyone singing Burn, baby, burn. It was outrageous and very funny. But context was all, and in the circumstances it was sung in a spirit of love, grief and anger. It was as powerful as a dies irae, not played for a larf.

Humour is important. It’s (on occasion) a great channel for pain and misery. It’s deadly serious, not an escape valve for an escapist snigger-urge.

But perhaps I am being too harsh or pious or puritanical. And if I am you’ll be cross enough to tell me so. You may or may not persuade me. But I think I’ll always incline to a treatment of loss more in the spirit of this wonderful tribute to his father by Simon Usborne.

8 thoughts on “Laughing it off

  1. Charles Cowling

    @esther onions: I have just tried to email you at the email address you gave but, sad to say, there seems to be no such address.

    This is what I wrote:

    Thank you very much for your comment on the Good Funeral Guide blog. Normally, all comments are published without my say-so but, unusually, yours had been retained for moderation. Perhaps my software thought it might be spam. It’s up now. I operate no censorship.

    Your tone is… indignant? Hostile? Angry? It would be good to know. Please don’t hold back.

    I think I’ve already made my case, which is that grief should not be trivialised or commercialised. That’s my opinion – and of course I can say what I like on my own website. I do not say that death must be a humour-free zone. Context is all. And humour is a serious matter.

    But if you’d like to write a riposte, I’d be glad to publish it. I don’t, actually, think I’m right about everything. And I am grown-up enough to recognise that strong opinions will generate strong counter-opinions. So I’d be really pleased to hear what you have to say. I believe in debate – which is why I put myself in a position where I can be shot down – and I make identity known.

    I’m impressed by what I perceive to be the strength of your feeling. Please don’t hold back if you would like to expand.

    With all best wishes,


    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    esther onions

    Hmmm, pot-kettle? You linked to this from Twitter:

    Oh, and this:

    You wrote ‘Dig that!’ about this one – how very offensive:


    A great ‘snigger-fest’ there, eh? Eh?

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Paul Hensby

    Dying Matters recently took on Sarah Stone to improve their online communications, so she is looking for things to talk about. Funeral music is a pretty safe bet, so I can’t get too annoyed, especially when she promptly put a link to My Last Song when I said that one of its main messages was to encourage people to choose music that meant a lot to them.
    Dying Matters are good in that they are encouraging people to talk about death and dying, but don’t seem very strategic in, for example, co-ordinating their communications or using members of the coalition to help spread their message.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Come on Charles, these list have been done hundreds or more times over, by researchers me included and writers. many funerals still have the traditions Hymns but the ‘pop’ music is played in and out. you know that. Families want a choice, they decide, not the funeral directors, nor the clergy, the families. Dying matters, Funeralcare amongst others are just letting folks pry into others choices, in a way letting them know they are not unusual in their thoughts on music for the funeral. The birdie song anyone.
    Dying matters are also trying to get people to talk, the same as many of us have been doing for years, you and me both. anyway hope the holiday was restful.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Honest funerals – canned alternatives are no better than canned traditions

    […] was cheered to see a blast against trivialising funerals on the Good Funeral Guide’s blog. Charles Cowling was particularly annoyed by the way Dying […]

  6. Charles Cowling

    …but just the same I’m tempted.

    Most people would probably be prepared to sacrifice a limb rather than let someone they really love die in front of them. Can you imagine them, in the event, holding a ceremony to mourn their missing appendage (probably not a bad idea…) that involved listening to Devendra Banhart’s “Legless Love”?

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    The translation error, repeatedly printed, of the expression ‘celebration of life’ is so puzzlingly self-evident that it seems otiose to correct it, yet again.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Comfort Blanket

    Oh dear… I don’t think you’re being too harsh. I feel really disappointed in Dying Matters – a coalition of which I am a member and have regularly sung their praises on my own blog and website. I think their heart is in the right place but they have, as you say, on this occasion strayed into Co-op Funeralcare’s territory when it comes to making assumptions about the British public’s taste.
    Why oh why, when funerals manage to get media coverage, does it have to show either someone saying “I’m going to have My Way when I go” like they are the first person to ever think of it, or the ‘snigger-fest’ of Another One Bites the Dust?
    Because what happens is, your average Joe or Josephine doesn’t get to hear about the respectful, relevant, unique, lovingly-humoured middle-ground between the traditional and the farcical, when it comes to funeral services.
    And the Simon Usborne tribute was lovely. Thanks Charles.

    Charles Cowling

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