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.

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Charles Cowling
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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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

X.Piry
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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… Read more »

Vale
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Vale

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… Read more »

Rupert Callender
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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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

gloria mundi
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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… Read more »

Jonathan
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Jonathan

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… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

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.

gloria mundi
Guest

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… Read more »

Comfort Blanket
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Comfort Blanket

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

X.Piry
Guest

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.