Posted by Richard Rawlinson, religious correspondent
The excerpt above is from a funeral sermon by a US Catholic priest in which he berates those members of the congregation who are only in church because it’s a loved one’s funeral, but whose own souls are in mortal danger after skipping Mass on a regular basis.
Some might be appalled by this opportunistic sabotage of a ceremony where the bereaved are bidding farewell to the deceased. A secular equivalent might be a British Humanist Association celebrant choosing a civil funeral to evangelise atheism by refusing to condone religious hymns, declaring that if the bereaved insist on such quasi-theist practices, he/she will declare that, ‘as a humanist I will not be taking part’.
To those celebrants flexible enough to tailor funerals to varying tastes, criticism of lapsed or half-baked faith or pick ‘n’ mix agnosticism might seem inappropriate. What’s more important for them is to do one’s best to show respect and sensitivity, accepting some will want frills of different hues, others will want the least fuss possible, allowing more time to laugh and cry over a booze-up at the main event, the post-committal party.
But where are more individualistic belief systems leading society – whether atheistic or ‘designer faiths’ cut to suit personal preferences? In some ways, both the stern shepherd priest and the bossy BHA militant are clear and decisive, but only if preaching to the converted. In the ‘consumer is king’ world, they’re arrogant prigs.
In his book, Futurecast, US religion statistics expert George Barna says the one-person-one-religion trend is a rejection of the boring services of organised religion. But he notes individualism is causing fracture. If everyone is pretty much on their own, you lose some of the capacity to make connections. It’s also triggering hostility towards institutions; government and industry, as well as organised religion and inflexible BHA God-haters.
All this makes it challenging to devise formulaic, communal rituals that are relevant to the individualism forming today’s civil funerals. Perhaps it simply isn’t possible, and we should be grateful that existing practices do indeed already unite those involved through personalised eulogies, songs and readings in the presence of the deceased. Symbolic acts such as liberating doves, ringing bells or assigning time to silent contemplation are an added ritualistic bonus but are unlikely to achieve the resonance of faith ritual.
It might be useful to study the Church’s way further. Churches are at an advantage as they’re beloved, familiar places of communal bonding that offer pastoral care before and after the funeral, as well in everyday life whether grieving or not. The rituals are not deemed extraordinary because they’re familiar by virtue of their weekly repetition.
To develop this point, allow me to briefly digress: while uncomfortable with the aforesaid priest’s modu operandi, the saying ‘Get yourself to Mass and your brain will follow’ resonates with me. The sacrament works because I’m open to the peace-giving and inspirational qualities of the Catholic faith. We eat when hungry, sleep when tired, work in order to earn money and gain spiritual nourishment from the Holy Eucharist. To those not receptive to the joyful mysteries of the Mass, its communal liturgy might seem far from an integral part of life, more pointless and dull in fact.
Living in London, I’m a member of a vibrant parish community participating in traditional Masses in a beautiful church with warm, erudite priests and an excellent master of music and choir. I’ve often wondered guiltily if I’d be so receptive if my local church was an edge-of-town bungalow with budget ceremony. I’ve been to such Masses and can honestly say – with or without lace, vestments, bells and smells; in spite of banal homilies, guitars in the sanctuary, and screaming kids in the pews – the Holy Eucharist remains a manna that brings miraculously a purer love, awe, gratitude, humility and inner peace than anything else on Earth. It’s familiar but extraordinary because of its meaning, not its ‘physical’ parts.
Crematoria as a backdrop for ritual are not ideal, strange, one-off places visited under duress in order to dispose of loved ones in a furnace. In a previous blog, I mentioned the North Texas Church of Freethought, a kind of community centre for atheists attempting to offer ‘all the educational, inspirational, and social and emotional benefits of traditional faith-based churches’. This extreme and most likely financially unviable option is perhaps more likely to be overrun by the didacts than the anything-goes liberals. Members of both camps might also find the concept too close for comfort to organised religion. So what are the alternatives for those seeking to escape the clock-watching charmlessness of the crematorium, and perhaps develop rituals that resonate?
Is there sufficient demand for two separate venues, church substitute for ceremony, crematorium for committal? And what are the options for church substitutes: hotels, homes, hilltops for alfresco funeral pyres? A ballroom in the former offers seating space and hospitality services but may be expensive and impersonal even if the manager found a way of sneaking in coffins without upsetting the guests. Homes may be too small for big turn-outs and outdoor funeral pyres are, I believe, currently illegal (good luck with your campaign, Rupert).
Wherever civil funerals are held and however much communal ritual is included, there’s conflict between individualism and commune, free-spirited ego and membership of a ‘club’ greater than its individual parts.