The Work of the People

Charles Cowling

By Vale

Some words seem problematic for the secularist. There was a good to-and-fro recently about ‘ritual’ on the blog a while ago and, in Funerals Without God, Jane Wilson says (a little sniffily to my mind) that Humanists talk about ‘ceremonies’ rather than ‘services’ because ceremonies are about celebration and mutual support while ‘service’ merely implies something done for God.

‘Service’ is one way in which the old word liturgy is translated and, if ‘service’ alarms the secular cats, liturgy puts their ears flat and their fur on end. As far as I can make out there are (at least) two reasons for this. The first is that the word has always been a religious expression. The second is that liturgy implies a fixed order of service: words said and actions done in a prescribed way. And, of course, we celebrants aspire to the ideal of unique and individually tailored services.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the religious objections. It matters, but the argument that religion has – for far too long – been allowed to colonise and define what is important and intrinsic to each of us, or that part of our job here should be to insist on reclaiming it as a right (a sort of Arab Spring of the spirit), can wait for another day.

No, I want to think about liturgy as something that could be important to take into account in the ceremonies I (we) have been creating.

Sure, we do wonderful things – flowers, doves, candles, music and motorbikes – but, if we are honest, aren’t these memorable because they are the exception? I’m not saying that our ceremonies aren’t individual, that we don’t try to tailor what we do, or that the elaborateness of the ceremony is any guide to the depth of feeling but…but… is it just me or does everyone get tired sometimes of the sound of their own voice? Are we all sweating over words that try to bring out something more of the meaning and value of the ceremony we are creating? Do others lie awake thinking of ways to engage people more in what is being enacted in front of them?

Liturgy is also translated as ‘the work of the people’ in the sense that, in religious services, God is asked to do something, but the congregation are expected to work too – through prayer, repentance, and all the regular religious ducking and dancing. In this sense Liturgy is less about words than the expectation that, when you are in a service, you are expected to do something too. Quakers sitting in silence waiting for the spirit to move them are practising a liturgy.

Of course the religions have this nailed down now. People who take part in religious services know what is expected of them. Are we letting people down by not expecting ‘work’ from them in our ceremonies? They aren’t services for God but shouldn’t celebrations also be services for the support and comfort of the people gathered together?

Isn’t there work to be done?

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Charles Cowling
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Which tells us a lot about the quality of people required to en-courage people to follow their hearts and put all other considerations aside. We live, after all, in a stifling culture, funeralwise. To answer your question, Vale (it seems a long time ago), YES. GM, point taken re prices. I think the joined-up R & C model is very attractive. Given the skills to be spanned they may be the exception, if also the ideal. Until they become general (well beyond XP’s lifetime and most certainly mine), I wish FDs would work more closely with celebrants and take some… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Wise words XP,well-balanced view, good to hear your voice .And Rupert’s comment about space and time to change your mind reinforces my view that we need more FDs who are also good celebrants and can work the whole thing right through from that crucial first meeting. Like him. I don’t generally get contacted until after the FD has already booked the bloody crem.

Rupert Callender
Guest

The family put the funeral together, we just gave them the courage to do it. They too struggled with ideas of what was ‘respectable’ but very quickly overcame that when we talked it through. What is needed is time to allow it to evolve and develop properly, space to change your mind or mull things over for a day or two, in this case it took 11 days. I would like to add that this family had never done anything like this before, or known anyone who had.

X.Piry
Guest

This is all fascinating stuff, but I fear that most of us will have had our own funeral before real changes are made. Just this week I met a family; the man who had died loved popular music, but we’re having classical because “that’s what we should have” according to his daughter; something conservative, something safe. People fear being thought of as too quirky and it being interpreted as “disrespectful”. Until we can convince them otherwise, we are stuck with the old ways. But also, let’s not underestimate how much comfort people have with the old ways – it should… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

“…all of us are a little peculiar..” says Vale. How dare you, sir! I refuse to settle for less than “distinctly odd, moving towards crackers.” It’s a sound point.

And Vale’s para “I want to understand..” through to “..renewed life.” goes on the title page of The Manual. Beautiful, quotable, true. That understanding, in whatever structures we have to endure, is our vocation, surely.

Vale
Guest
Vale

Wow! This feels like throwing a paper dart at a venture and watching it grow wings and fly off on it’s own. Charles is probably used to the sensation, but for a first time blogger it feels like an immense privilege to be part of this conversation. It seems to me that, if there is work to be done we are each in our own way already engaged in it. The most exciting part is that it has already gone beyond thinking and is moving into practice – Ruperts beautiful service, Gloria’s friendly challenge to her local FDs, all our… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

So Vale starts a really very useful discussion about the nature and quality of funeral ceremonies, we get some excellent contributions, and now we are back here talking about structural matters, and grumbling about FDs. Oh well, I’ll try a bit of cack-handed thinking aloud meself in this area: So we are too cheap – so I put up my prices, and I get used less. I make as much or more money, help fewer people. I’m not doing it to make much money. Even I can do that more easily than by celebrancy. Or, I make an alliance with… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

… and anyway, how did they succeed in business by marketing their product as something their customers don’t want?

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Yes, it says the funeral is the obstacle to grieving. And yes, we celebrants undervalue ourselves as long as we go on trying to sell ourselves to the wrong market, the one that undervalues us. Going through the FDs is the easy way, but it’s the one that ultimately keeps us powerless.

gloria mundi
Guest

The Manual is being written here. I’m up for it, and Jonathan is a revolutionary but not unrealistic – in practical terms, putting the horse back in front of the cart should be simple enough, but HOW? I’m going to talk to an FD this pm as a try-out, ask her what she says at the first meeting, how she decides whether or not to suggest me, and a lot of other stuff I shall take from this posting and discussion. And since I don’t want to be a FD, I’m going to suggest to a couple I know that… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

I’m up for it, Kathryn. I’d just like to raise a rather pedantic disinction between the funeral and the disposal of the body. Disposal by itself is just a legal and practical requirement, and not a reason for a funeral, which is to accompany the disposal with ceremony to try and make some sense out of bereavement and death in the moment when it’s right here with us. So, the method and style of disposal become part of a ceremony (or should do). The ceremony is the actual reason people turn up, not to make sure the body’s buried or… Read more »

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Funny you should lay that out, Jonathan. I’ve been thinking for a while that the funeral business is upside-down. Of course it out to be fronted by ritualists: the opening conversation needs to be about the desired psychic environment and activities, not about coffins and cars. We need to stand the whole thing the other way up, so that the first person a client meets [NB terminology: ‘client’, because what’s on offer is professional judgement, as opposed to ‘customer’ who just buys things] is someone qualified to have a conversation about ritual. The ceremony is indeed one of the reasons… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Well, Vale, I’ve just got to wade into this one. Shallow end first: I too sweat over words, and lie awake angst-ing about how to get people doing something active to get more out of a grieving ritual. But the last two days brought into sharp relief for me how they’re often quietly doing the work already. Yesterday I gave a talk on celebrancy, involving an edited sample of words I’d once spoken at a funeral. I’d hoped they’d see it as a demonstration, but reading it to an audience who didn’t know the person who’d died felt more like… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Wow. What a valuable post and set of comments. I share your unease, Vale, at the uninterrupted sound of my own voice, however pleased I am with what the family have given me and I’ve been able to write up. And it is a strain sometimes, trying to reach lift-off (the moment where the conceptual, the emotional and factual – if one can thus separate matters – fuse), the bits that make the people smile, weep, look at each other and nod. And that’s rewarding, but it’s not a lot of work/contribution. At our local crem, I witnessed from the… Read more »

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Oh, Rupert: that’s fab.

Rupert Callender
Guest

We took a service today at a woodland burial ground where the equivalent of the committal was the 13 year old son reading the last few pages of the Roald Dahl he had been reading to his mother in hospital. All the family and friends filled in the grave while we blared out Ray of Light by Madonna on our portable mp3 player. Those not filling danced. We’re getting there! Agree with all you say Vale, and Jon and Katherine.

Kathryn Edwards
Guest
Kathryn Edwards

Work to be done? Oh yes. And I’d say ’embodiment’ is an important part of it. In losing the linguistic bit of the liturgy, secularists – and other non-religious – have diminished the access to the comfort and inspiration, the resonant poetry of the traditional texts: ‘dust to dust’, and so forth. But all too often what’s retained includes the pews in which people stiffly sit, their bodily behaviours censored, self-censored and constrained. Maybe there’s a moment to place a rose or crumble some pre-selected earth, but where’s the chance to rattle and roll in the grieving body? From my… Read more »

Jon Underwood
Guest
Jon Underwood

“Isn’t there work to be done?”

No doubt. Its clear from this powerful post that you’re doing your share of it. That is brave work.

This is what I love about the GFG blog (and the work of others reflecting on death). It reeks of authenticity, a much needed quality in this world.