My way or the highway

Charles 10 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson, religious correspondent

The was once 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.


  1. Charles

    Interesting range across some important points, Richard.

    The options for places for a secular funeral are not, I think, necessarily a “church substitute,” because for the dead person and perhaps many or some of those attending, there has been no church for which a substitute is needed.

    There are many people, perhaps an increasing number of people, who are not lapsed anythings, they never had a religious faith identity. I appreciate it is difficult to write about these matters entirely outside of one’s own frame of reference, whether that frame be the RC church, an aggressive atheism, or a bemused “don’t really knowism.”

    But to step outside one’s own frame of reference is the way genuinely to find our way through the issues you raise. To return to Catholicism as the default and starting/finishing point just won’t work for those who don’t share your faith, however much we may admit the power of your music and your rituals. We may outside them, and we may be likely to stay there.

    So to answer your questions honestly, Richard, I really feel it’s no good falling back on a faith-based default mode. Again, you say that the emerging elements of ritual for secular ceremonies are “unlikely to achieve the resonance of faith ritual.” That seems to me unknowable, by you or any of us. And your statement would be more useful to me, at least, if it said “…of faith based ritual for those who share that faith.”

    I’m sure you can accept, if with regret, that faith based ritual may have no resonance at all for someone without that faith.

    At a more practical level: village halls have been used effectively for a few secular funerals at which I have helped. A private plot of land on a steep hillside with intermittent snow and hail provided an excellent venue for a burial ceremony. It was a powerful event. Even one of the better crems with a double time allocation, and plenty of family inolvement, has been the location recently for what I felt was an effective funeral.

    Your idea of a ‘free-spirited ego’ and your examination of individualism might be in danger of ignoring the way that an effective secular funeral creates a temporary small community of “those who knew and loved..” Also,before and after the funeral, that community existed and goes on existing. A community is not just some grouping of people who meet regularly for ritual purposes!

    An effective funeral is not just about one ego, one set of personal choices. It is, as far as possible, for everyone at that funeral.

    I didn’t stay to the end of the funeral sermon. At least your doctrinaire BHA celebrant (of whom there may be fewer than you think, incidentally)gets the homily over with in a few lines, however offensive it may be to some present. The priest in the video doesn’t seem to have considered that some of the people at that funeral for a Catholic may not have been Catholic themselves. In which case, I’d say he’s being pretty inconsiderate. If the dead person had been a friend of mine, and I’d gone expecting a Catholic funeral and been berated like that, in that (to me) irrelevant fashion, I’d have been hard put not to have had a few frank words with the man afterwards.

  2. Charles


    In the matter of the meaning of life and afterlife, I think we all fall back on a faith/non-faith-based ‘default mode’. Our beliefs inevitably form us but this doesn’t mean we don’t step outside our ‘own frame of reference’ to better understand issues.

    You were perhaps in default mode when you said a community is ‘not just a grouping of people who meet regularly for ritual purposes’. It’s a given we’re not just talking about physical acts: the context is the difference between individualist philosophy and shared faith. I’m not disputing ‘an effective secular funeral creates a temporary small community of “those who knew and loved..”’ or that ‘before and after the funeral, that community existed and goes on existing’.

    Life unites people in many ways: family units, sports teams, office colleagues, nightclub ravers, film audiences. I also accept many people are united by ‘lack of religious faith identity’. My ‘default mode’ to faith isn’t denying this, I’m asking how secular funeral rituals and venues can improve to resonate more. If they’re as advanced as they can get, fine.

  3. Charles

    “serious mortal sin” “you’ve got to be ready to meet God” “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you” “read scripture every day” “world gone mad” etc…
    A nasty and vindictive man threatening eternal damnation – good to know that religious leaders are continuing their centuries old traditions of abuse and mental torture. Everything he says confirms my deep belief in living my life without god and especially without priests, however imperfect the alternatives.

  4. Charles

    Richard, secular funeral ritueals and venues are not, it seems to me, as advanced as they can get – if they were, there wouldn’t be a little cloud of us buzzing round the GFG exchanging ideas, suggestions and worries. And I think, by the by, that minds highly trained and experienced in such metters can over-estimate the degree to which there is a clear line between individualist philosophies and shared faiths.

    Seems to me many people move to and fro across that line. They share X, but go back to their own position about Y. That’s what makes scular funerals so varied and challenging. In purely procedural term, what a relief it would sometimes be to fall back on established procedure and dogma, instead of trying to find the right shape for each ceremony!

    But that’s our challenge and our privilege.

  5. Charles

    “In the matter of the meaning of life and afterlife, I think we all fall back on a faith/non-faith-based ‘default mode’.”

    Count me out there, Richard. I neither have faith nor not have faith; just because you have faith doesn’t mean everyone else has to take up a position in relation to you. That may be a difficult concept for you to grasp, but you don’t seem to be trying, and it’s a fundamental disgreement with pretty well everything you post on this blog. If I come across as flippant to you sometimes in my responses, it’s deliberate.

  6. Charles

    Jonathan, your responses are brief and blunt but not flippant. You’ve made important points succinctly and given me thought for thought on a couple of occasions.

    Gloria Mundi, the same goes for you when you reply in more depth! I actually think we agree on more than we admit but are beginning to spar over semantics.

    I’m aware there’s only so much longevity in my blogging from a trad faith perspective. If fresh thoughts and subjects don’t arise I won’t want to constantly revisit the ground above which is a continuation of my previous blog.

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