What is a funeral for?

Charles Cowling

Three views here about what a funeral is for by Christian holy people in response to this article here.

Something that allows space for people of all faiths and none to recognise that our lives are about more than the acquisition of wealth and bigger than the sometimes compartmentalised lives we liveuntil we have a national language and a pattern for doing these things that all can relate to, it is simply not going to meet a very human desire for ritual action that all can take part in.  Rev Adele Rees London


A funeral service is neither a “time for thanksgiving” nor “the celebration of a life”, even though that certainly seems to be what many mourners nowadays think they have to have, thereby hurrying past the all-important grieving stages. But the principal focus of the rite is the dignified and appropriate disposal of a corpseFr Alec Mitchell Manchester


Three really good things – a tribute by a family member, humour and applause excluding language about God limits what you can say about the richness and depth of human life.  Canon Robert Titley Rector in the Richmond team ministry


Having spent last night listening to religious choral music by that well known atheist Mozart I am moved to suggest to Canon Titley that invocations to the Supreme Being do nothing to detract from a sense of wonder and mystery.

14 thoughts on “What is a funeral for?

  1. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Well, that’s it, isn’t it? Rather than ritual, let’s talk about theatre, ceremonial, heightened language perhaps, symbolic actions. All elements which raise a funeral above the perfunctory.

    And then there’s etiquette. By that I don’t mean frightfully good manners for frightful people, I mean forms of conduct which recognise the status of the bereaved, and which respect and comfort and offer them practical help — and enable the non-bereaved to do something, say something; which dispel the isolation of the bereaved, surrounded as they can be by people who don’t know what to say or what to do. If life has got to go on (and the record shows that it does) let it be with purpose with everyone knowing their role and what is expected and how to do it. Which is why I come back to sitting Shiva. I think it’s a marvellous way of helping people through it; and it gives everyone a role: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7fPRbcLeaE&feature=player_embedded This is just one element, of course. But social interaction is enabled by etiquette, by agreed courtesies and modes of conduct. Why do we shake hands, for example? (And so on…)

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Good point about ritual, X.Piry; and perhaps our understanding of ritual is evolving into the feeling of the collective atmosphere that evokes and encourages certain human qualities, more than it is the actions performed. I mean, you wouldn’t go to Tesco in the same frame of mind as you would to a funeral (though sometimes you’d prefer to be at a funeral!), yet you could say that supermarket shopping has become a ritual (certainly a repeated action with the same end result; an atmosphere to encourage unthinking purchase; and look around at the other shoppers if you want to see some solemnity!) So what makes ritual out of the ordinary, and how, and why?

    There is a theatrical element to funerary ritual that does just what theatre does – it takes you to an imaginary realm; to a place you’d be frankly embarrassed to go to with others ordinarily, but which feels quite naturally the only place where
    certain very real things – expression of extraordinary emotions, for example – can happen.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Rupert – not preachy at all and very valid.

    Jonathan – interesting observations about the word “committal”. Are we joining/sending these good folks with/to the earth? But perhaps I am talking about their body, rather than the things that others remember of them.

    Following on from Jonathan and Vale – you’re right that for many “ritual” is repeating what has gone before. But I wonder if people feel that the coming together with others is actually the important bit? Yes, for many, there are repeated practices that mean somthing, but for others it’s the being with those who can support them at a difficult time and the public marking of the event that makes it out of the ordinary.

    New ritual is definitely a contradiction, but how often do we have to repeat something before it becomes a ritual in its own right?

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Jonathon’s last words rang (for me) like a call to arms! Wonderful!

    I agree with GM that although the roots of words are interesting they cannot, everlastingly, determine usage. In this instance it’s natural that ritual should have its roots in religion because, until now, we humans have pretty well universally interpreted our relationships with the world, with each other and with the big events in our own lives in a religious context.

    What I find more interesting is that the need for ritual is so universal. It is what humans do when someone is born, turns 13, gets married and dies. You could almost say that this instinct for ritual is one of the things that define us as human.

    And this is where Jonathon’s call to action is so important. Because religion has occupied this territory for so long, we now identify ritual with religion, and where religion is no longer present it can mean that people feel that they have no basis for ritual.

    This seems to me to be dangerous at all sorts of levels. People know that their lives have meaning but it is somehow important for us all that we have places and opportunities to express this meaning in a shared, public way.

    As celebrants, we are both exploring and mapping this new territory as well as giving it form and structure. Are we, like Shelley’s poets, ‘unacknowledged legislators’ shaping and giving structure to what matters in people’s lives in this post religious world?

    Since I started scribbling this down Rupert has posted – some over lap and much to agree with. Most of all we must not allow religion to define or lay claim to all that is numinous or spiritual in our relationship with the world around us…

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    The term ‘religion’ has become shorthand for a set of beliefs that contain some supernatural hope for an afterlife, but I think this is limiting. There are many other aspects to a religion that have benefits; social cohesion, shared purpose, a sense of the importance of ‘the other’, in Van Morrison’s words a ‘moment of transcendence from the mundane reality of everyday life’. The origins of the word mean ‘to bind,’ which either conjures up images of enslavement or inclusion depending on what medieval humor you tend towards.

    Ideas such as redemption, faith, perhaps even the notion of sin can and I think should still have a place in our spiritual landscape, and I believe these things can be refashioned without needing to involve the things we all disagree on, namely what happens next.

    The elephant in the Humanist room is whether it is defined in it’s opposition to religion, or whether it is an alternative one to Christianity. I believe it should be the latter, as Auguste Comte attempted to begin.

    What we all agree on here on the comments page of this mighty organ is the importance of love in human existence, and how it is our personal relationships that really give our lives meaning and form. Any ritual or observance new or old which skirts around this issue is set to become irrelevant, as is any ceremonial act which feels awkward, strained or just plain silly. Telling it as it is, and by that I really mean creating the circumstances so the bereaved can tell it as it is by what they say and do, is what makes a service electric and vital and transformative.

    Nothing new I’m afraid, just my usual preachy tuppence worth. Feel free to ignore.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    You’re right of course, GM to wind me in a bit – I’m just a pedant really, one who gets an attack of converstation rage from being overcrowded by preposterous fashionable phrases like ‘in terms of’ when ‘about’ would be the normal word; one whose ears sting when they hear words like ‘contempory’, whose pulse races when it encounters the word ‘fraction’ to mean a very small proportion, or ‘quality’ used as an adjective to mean good. I could go on…

    But I stick to my guns about religious usage confusing our message. Why, for instance, do we use the word ‘committal’ in a funeral that’s not about sending the soul to god? ‘Committal’ means join, entrust, from ‘com’: with, and ‘mittere’: send. It’s a religious term, no two ways about it. I now use another word, instinctively coined by one family member who didn’t know the word committal – ‘Departure’. Well, the coffin is departing from view, so at least it’s defensible, even for an atheist.

    I’m talking about the Doctor Spock syndrome: the false analogy between unconnected entities that imbues the collective subconscious with erroneous but fatally contagious notions, such as that the famous American child psychologist was a pointy-eared alien from the planet Vulcan. Haven’t you been called a Humanitarianistic vicar before now? I have! Hasn’t a family member asked you what they’re allowed to do at their own event, assuming you have some god-given authority over them? I could go on…

    By our manner, our beauty, our connection to the bereaved, the high quality of our very being must we be seen not as different from an imaginary norm called ‘religion’, but as an entity in our own right that invites no comparison and which all have the right to choose if they wish.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Interesting comment, Jonathan – but words can and do move away from their derivations. (good examples being “nice”and “cute,” I guess.)

    I don’t think “ceremony” is unuseable in a non-religious context, I think it’s reasonably free-standing by now. People call Trooping the Colour a ceremony.

    “Ritual” sems a bit more problematical, I agree. We don’t want to imply a pre-scribed model, although it is of course frequently a “usual” form (“Sans religion” as Charles called it) unless there is breakthrough into something else.

    “Rite” is good, dictionary-wise (“a solemn observance or act” though solemn’s a bit awkward, perhaps.)But it might sound a bit remote to the modern ear. Although a funeral is certainly a rite of passage.

    H’m. I’m OK with “ceremony” for now, although it’s a weaker word than either “ritual” or “rite,” in terms of evoking symbolic meanings and powerful feelings. But there’s more thinking to do, agreed.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Can we agree, at least, on what a ‘ritual’ is? Concise Oxford Dictionary says (among other things):

    ‘Rite’ – (from Latin ‘ritus’; usage)

    1. a religious or solemn observance or act.
    2. an action or procedure required or usual in this

    ‘Ritual’ – (from Latin ‘ritus’; usage)

    1. a prescribed order of performing rites.
    2. a procedure regularly followed.

    It seems ‘prescribed’ (already written) and ‘procedure’ (moving forwards) are intrinsic to ritual. My definition of ‘ritual’, then, would be: ‘Doing what we always do to reach the same end every time’.

    I’m beginning to think ‘ritual’ is not the word we’re looking for, unless we want to homogenize funeral ceremony. Old ritual is becoming increasingly unacceptable to those with their own sense of direction. New ritual is evidently a contradiction, as it must be established to be a ritual at all. ‘Ceremony’, unfortunately, comes from ‘caeremonia’, meaning ‘religious worship’. Religion, through usage, has infused even the language of funerary practice (let alone the architecture, furniture and god knows what else) and it would be hard to find a harmonious blend of procedure that didn’t exclude someone or other but which embraced the actual purpose of a funeral. Whatever that is, to whomever.

    My question to a bereaved family is often (a paraphrased version of): “Why are you having a funeral?” ‘You’ is the crucial word. When I suggested recently that others present may have a certain reaction to a particular proposed element of the, er, ceremony, I received the reply: “It’s not for them, is it!” Well, the lady had a point, I suppose; ‘they’ were not the ones organizing and paying for the event.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    Quite so, GM. Rituals must evolve (or not; I think not more likely), they can’t be imposed except for people who sign up to a creed which demands obedience (all of them to a greater or lesser degree).

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Well, I’m with you Charles on the worth of rituals, but I can’t see why ministers (of any creed)need to advance one model. And actually, I think sometimes people (of various and of no religion) do know what to do and say, and how to present, when someone dies; whether or not it fits in with your or my idea of what’s good for them, what should happen etc., seems to me rather less important than helping them put on a ceremony that suits their needs.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    I must say, I was engaged by what Ms Rees says about language and pattern. The Jewish custom of sitting Shiva is something all secular folk might do well to practise. It is much more about emotional health than anything to with god. And the fact remains that when people die no one knows what to do, how to present, what to say. Rituals would be very useful in promoting emotional health — in normalising things. I don’t think they need be overly prescriptive or rigid…

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Wise words, XP. Maybe the inability to accept a variety of languages and rituals, to suit a variety of peoples and beliefs, is a little too rigid for the country we’re in now? But I like the first part of her statement.

    People who have strong beliefs (in whatever) – do they find it harder not to sound dogmatic, however well-meaning? Maybe I’m just the soggiest of liberals.

    Many people might argue that excluding langauge about God leaves, for them, much more space to say things about the depth and richness of human life.

    And yet again do we have to polarise between celebrating life, and grieving, Fr.Alec? I watched people this afternoon doing both those things in the space of 25 minutes.Laughter, and plenty of tears and grieving.

    It is surely possible in one funeral to dispose of a corpse in a dignified etc manner, grieve for a life that’s ended, and feel able to celebrate a life. Only prob is, “to celebrate a life” has perhaps turned into a cliche.

    Actually, I’m being too polite. Why don’t all those (clerics, atheists, whoever)who think their job is to say what everyone ought to do and feel, why don’t they just butt out? They might try a little harder to accept another’s position, emotions, beliefs, as every bit as real and valid as their own, if they’re going to be of any help. We’ve all got our own preferences. Let’s not confuse them with our roles at a funeral.

    As XP says, they’re all three a bit right and a bit wrong!

    With you on the Mozart, Charles. Mystery, beauty and profundity, to the point of tears.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    Comfort Blanket

    Father Mitchell’s focus on ‘corpse disposal’ sounds a little grim…

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling

    Interesting observations, Charles.

    Perhaps, in a way, they’re all right and they’re all wrong, according to the needs of that particular bereaved spouse of family.

    Will we ever have a “national language and pattern” for our rituals? That phrase makes me a little uncomfortable. It rather suggests we all think and believe the same things.

    Charles Cowling

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