We need to talk about funerals

Charles Cowling




Posted by Vale


But, I hear you say, we do already. All the time. Interminably.

And, of course, we do.

This website springs from the Good Funeral Guide and the blog is full of discussions about new ways to dispose of bodies, about wild and wonderful flights of imagination in the services that are being created and lots of talk about the funeral industry itself. There is even room for philosophising in the many posts that consider what funerals are for (click on the category Ceremonies at the bottom of this post for a full listing).

But it struck me recently that, interesting and important as this talk is, most of our posts are about what happens in and after the service. We talk much more rarely about what happens before, even though this is where, for the people involved, all the important decisions are taken. It is also where funeral directors have an  opportunity to make a real difference to the quality of the service provided. To understand how, you first have to recognise what is happening.

Think about the traditional way that funerals were commissioned (and allow me to exaggerate and oversimplify for a moment). In a religious context it is the priest/ rabbi/ immam or whoever that acts as the guardian of the process. They may well be involved before death. After they act both as guardian and guide to what is to be done, in what timescale and with what rites. Funeral director, the family themselves, every player in the funeral process submits to this approach.

For the people involved in – and who are happy to identify themselves with – the process there is a great deal of comfort in this. It is often rooted in community. It will express contains both tradition and continuity, and it satisfies the requirements of faith. There is the added satisfaction of  knowing that all that is right and proper has been done.

Of course the direct link between family and faith – even as a cultural association) has been weakening for a long time now. In this census year a UK survey by the British Humanist Association suggested that two thirds of us do not regard ourselves as religious. While, internationally, another study claimed that data collected over a number of censuses (censi?) showed that in nine countries there was a trend that would lead in the end to the extinction of religion.

In these circumstances what should families do? The GFG is unequivocal. People should be given the information, advice, time and support they need to work out what sort of funeral service they want.

But, without access to another wise guide, funeral directors have, by default, acquired a huge new responsibility. More often than not they are the ones that families turn to as they begin to face up to the question of what sort of service it is that they need to commission. It has to be a real concern that – with some notable, brilliant and inspiring exceptions – too many still feel that the old process is the best – even where it lacks all legitimacy or meaning in the lives of the people affected.

This is why we need to talk about funerals. Meaning, spirituality, grieving, the comfort of community are all possible outside of religion, but only if the right questions are asked at the start. What needs to happen to make sure that more funeral directors are willing to ask them?

8 thoughts on “We need to talk about funerals

  1. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Gloria mundi, the BHA calls on the government to end faith schools claiming they ‘are currently able to religiously discriminate in their admissions criteria, which causes both ethno-religious and socio-economic selection’.

    Such Statism is essentially destructive. In the case of multiculturalism, statists used the arrival of outsiders as a means to attack the institutions of the nation (often against the wishes of immigrants). Grammar schools, which produced inequalities, were replaced with a new comprehensive system. From having one of the best state education systems in the world, England now has one of the worst outside the third world.

    To eliminate inequality one has to eliminate human freedom. I’d prefer to continue allowing first-class schools as London’s Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School or the London Oratory to give preferential treatment to Catholic families.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    A useful corrective to my sense of headlongness from sweetpea and Jonathan – rev/evolution is in hand, and we need to work at broadening public perception through our work, rather than getting too down in the mouth about those FDs who are not yet abroad.

    And as you say, the choice is not to be defined by religious/not religious – an unhelpfully blunt insptrument.

    However, it might be worth reminding Richard that at the level of public perception and political enactment, most humanists want “all faiths and no faith” to have equal standing in a civil society in which is secular, and accepting of any faith so long as it is not destructive of others’ rights and freedoms. The fact that some elements of the BHA choose to define themselves mostly by what they don’t believe, and are aggressively atheistic, should not blind us to that mission. It’s a pity they mirror the desperate intolerance of some religious elements – although as far as I know they don’t actually bomb people, or encourage others to do so…

    I’d have thought, as a Catholic in the UK, he’d not be too happy with the idea of “established” churches, privileged belief positions, and intolerance towards other beliefs, of any sort.

    There’s no reason why a humanist shouldn’t take an ideologically aggressive stance against religions, within the law, just as religions are free to do so against other religions or against atheism. No reason – but it is a pity they feel the need to.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    I agree with most of what you say, Joanthan, but I’m not sure I accept the premise that it’s ‘mostly the dissatisfied who end up with a secular funeral ceremony’.

    Certainly, I meet some families who have floundered with the decision because they only know, as you say, ‘what they don’t want’ – often from direct experience of poor funerals in the past. I know that there are funeral directors who are reluctant to employ me or my ilk because of their own belief system – they have told me so – and I’m very saddened by this paternalistic and misguided attitude. And I particularly like receiving bookings from those quarters when a family has gone in and asked for me by name.

    Well, perhaps I am very fortunate with the vast majority of my funeral directors, but through these lovely people I’ve also met a fair few families who’ve chosen to employ a civil celebrant right from the outset, as a proactive and positive choice. There’s no better advertisement for a good funeral than witnessing one, or word of mouth, and so the chain starts to link up for people.

    I’m glad you think my previous comments optimistic, Jonathan. I usually think of myself as a cautious and glass half empty gal, but on this subject I do have a quiet sense of faith that all will be well. Eventually.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Right on, Sweetpea, it has little to do with religious or secular sensibility. I’t more about whether a bereaved person has the resource to even wonder, much less ask, about an alternative to the ‘norm’ of a vicar at a funeral unless they know of one. “What sort of service do you want?” is probably the nearest most undertakers get to outlining the possibilities, and yes, I think it depends a lot on which undertaker you approach. It’s mostly the dissatisfied who end up with a secular funeral ceremony; the ones who know what they don’t want, but still don’t know what they do want.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    I know, Jonathan. Funeral directors are still the main point of contact in opening up possilibities to many families, and the quality and depth of their interest and knowledge still plays a very significant part in that decision making process. Which rather begs the question, is it in fact the choice of funeral director which is the really important first decision?

    But, I still maintain that a generalised social change is as much a part of this as religious or secular sensibility. Be it through ease of access to information through technology, baby boomers’ expectations of personal choice, an increasing impatience with formality…whatever it may be, when given high quality information, people choose what really suits them. And a good funeral, of whatever persuasion, is seen, appreciated and hopefully emulated by those of the same mind.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    While Church communities support their members before, during and after funerals, I agree more can be done by trained, secular caring professionals.

    However, I agree with Deborah Orr, writing in The Guardian, about the BHS’s aggressive stance against religion:

    “I caught up with the British Humanist Association’s plea: “We urge people who do not want to give continuing or even greater importance to unshared religions in our public life to tick ‘No Religion’ in the census.

    “Actually, I had ticked “No Religion”. But I still don’t like the tenor of this instruction. I don’t want to stand against “believers”. I am still, for my secular sins, a wet multiculturalist, minded to put up with the beliefs I can’t share, whenever possible, in the interests of strengthening those that I can. I’m combative and dogmatic by nature, but I don’t think these are among the finest of human qualities.

    “Combat especially, of course. It is a popular atheist assertion, the one that says religion causes war. As if humans would never fight over land, or resources, or power, or out of sheer, carnivorous, animal aggression. Humans cause war”.

    I also disagree, of course, with the idea of religion as just another field to be analysed by the social sciences, in the same way as language or population movements.

    The BHA’s poll questioned 1,900 people and argued that many of those who do identify themselves as religious, do so for “cultural reasons.”

    The Church existed long before the BBC or the BHA and will do so long afterwards, for Christ said so!

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    A delightfully optimistic comment, Sweetpea. Thank you; I’ve tended to adopt a ‘glass is nine-thenths empty’ approach, as ninety percent of funerals in my area are still inappropriately religious despite the criticisms of precisely those with the power to affect that – the grieving public. So it’s good to hear about stirrings in the depths of ohters’ murky moats.

    Yet, yet… I can’t help agreeing with the sentiment of Vale’s last sentence, as funeral directors I speak to talk as if the matter of ceremony is completely beyond their influence, when what they mean is it’s outside their area of interest.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Yes, Vale, you are absolutely right. We do need to talk about funerals.

    We’ve written elsewhere about its attractiveness as a topic of conversation, and the deep (and often unfulfilled) desire people have to talk about death in day-to-day life.

    But in our ponderings, I sometimes think we might underestimate the extent to which change is already well under way, led by individuals and families who are increasingly knowledgeable about the options open to them. And more power to their elbow. Aided by good support, client-led decisions about the overall nature of a funeral are good, and can sometimes even bypass the influence of ‘professionals’ in that all-important decision.

    In my own area, families increasingly come to meet a funeral director with a direct request for a civil, secular, or humanist funeral. Mum perhaps attended one last year and not only decided that this was for her, but looked everything up on the internet and even requested a specific celebrant.

    While we are sitting here examining our navels (and I mean that in a kindly way) the small rumblings of a big revolution can be heard over the battlements. That’s not something the church, funeral directors or secular professional bodies can have much control over, and it might surprise us all where it leads.

    Charles Cowling

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