Words, words, words

Charles 19 Comments


First posted by Charles on 9 Feb 2010

I’m putting this back up as a contribution to recent debates started by Jose and Richard.

Following my post about the ineptitude and ineffectiveness of words, I stumbled on this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s actually about citizenship ceremonies, but you’d never guess it from the way I’ve plucked the extracts:

Traditionally, ritual, including rites of passage, is embedded in our religious culture. And it is true that religion seems to have a competitive advantage when it comes to this stuff. Religions have been practising their liturgy for a long time. The godly are very good at all of the non-verbal aspects of ritual from bells and smells to crazy cozies to speaking in tongues. Great ceremony is about an absence of speeches and many faiths get this.

Moreover, the godly have the advantage that they feel that they are consecrating their rites in the presence of their transcendent God. That ineluctably gives an ineffable power to the ceremony. The godless will obviously struggle to match that attribute of faith. And we need to get better at the non-verbal stuff. We atheists can talk the leg off a chair but we can’t sing or chant or dance the leg off an amputee.

Now a real rite of passage doesn’t just rejoice in change. It is the change. A ceremony which merely celebrates but doesn’t cause the change is not strictly a rite of passage. Graduation ceremonies from university are rites of passage because you don’t get the damned piece of paper without enduring the ceremony. On this definition, school graduations strictly aren’t rites of passage because the exam marks after the ceremony are the life-changing event, not the school graduation or valedictory service. So funerals aren’t strictly rites of passage because unless you’re a time traveller, your funeral won’t end your life, just celebrate it.

We, of the secular world, often fail to employ those non-verbal rituals that make a ceremony. You can easily cock up even the most moving event by speeches. During my days of municipal service, these ceremonies meandered between inspirational and pedestrian. The pedestrian bits were inevitably the speeches. The best bits were non-verbal – the Mayoral handshake, the familial hugging, the singing of the national anthem, the presentation of the symbolic wattle and the giving of certificate. All of these had no words merely music or actions.

Religions don’t have a monopoly on rites of passage but they do them better than us. The secular world needs to learn more about celebrating without speeches. We need to have rituals we perform together and not passively watch. I think we are still a century or so away from really learning these skills.

At the heart of great ceremony is performance that is not normal. Normal is pedestrian. Words are dull. We need transforming ceremony and that requires anything but speeches.

Read the whole article here.


  1. Charles

    Interesting. He’s right: words in the form of speeches may often be overplayed in secular funerals. He’s wrong: words don’t have to be dull, we all know that from watching the reactions to a poem from granddaughter which may be a terrible poem in one sense, but it’s powerful stuff there and then.

    And the anecdotes that work so well, and make people laugh and cry – these words are not dull. Our job is to separate the dull words and lose as many of them as possible.

    And I’m not sure he’s right about rites of passage – do they, in other cultures, always cause rather than mark the change? I don’t know enough anthropology and different spiritual traditions to answer that, but I bet some people out there do!

    I’m quite happy to see an effective funeral as a rite of passage, if it helps to change the mourners’ relationship to the body of the dead person, and affect, or to some degree create, the meanings they carry from the funeral.

    But then he is, in fairness, writing about citizenship ceremonies.

    And then – we all know about dull secular ceremonies; has he never been at a dull religious ceremony, where despite all the potential ritual power he describes, the thing lacks resonance, meaning, connection…

    So maybe every funeral, church or secular, needs to be made new, or whatever the ritual elements, it will be ineffective.

  2. Charles

    I suppose (sorry to take a second bite, Charles)it’s not whether we need more or fewer words, more smells and bells, fewer of same etc – it’s what works, for these people, in that place. Of course words feel inadequate at times, as the piece Charles links to makes plain, but in another sense, words are where we live. Good priests, good secular celebrants, find the right ones, and know the manner in which to say them best.

  3. Charles

    Have as many bites as you wish, GM.

    I think his point is a good one: that it’s all about words and.

    Non-verbal ritual elements now commonly include community singing, candle-lighting, flower placing, dove/balloon releasing…

    Are enough secular celebrants incorporating same, and are there any others that we might adopt?

    For example, I am an Anglo-Saxon dullwit and I have seriously considered buying one of those Tibetan handbells and doing a ting before the farewell words and another after them.

    Structure is important. So is progression. Punctuation is important. Prose has its place, as does the elevated language of poetry. But let not words have a monopoly. As our religious correspondent points out, in a Quaker moment, silence, the obverse of words, also has its place.

    Words and. Let’s hear it for and.

  4. Charles

    I think the idea of incorporating a little Tibetan handbell into your ceremonies is a fine idea Charles. Simple and effective.
    Some of the other things you mention, candle lighting and dove releasing in particular, we have done but no longer do much. There are too many opportunities for awkwardness to creep in, doves that are reluctant to fly, bloody matches.
    Hand holding can become excruciating, and anything that makes one person feel uncomfortable breaks the spell. Dreading what comes next is the death of ceremony.
    Singing is fine if you are lucky enough to have a group who are in a fit emotional state to do so, and the song is good, and flower placing always seems to work. Permission granted to physically approach the coffin/body is enormously releasing, but I’m with GM in that sometimes words, the right words are what work best. Then silence, and doing the deed.

  5. Charles

    Like the bell idea very much, Quasimodo,and am right with you on the power of non-speech elements, including silence – experienced a lovely Quaker-ish silence at a wedding I helped to run; and Ru’s point is worth having in pokerwork over the ambitious celebrant’s bed-head: if it is dreaded, it won’t work.
    Permission to approach the coffin as a release for everyone there – who’s the Anglo-Saxon dulwit now? Never thought of making that direct statement to the gathering, only to the family. Duh! Shall get on with it forwith.
    There we are. That’s what Cowlings are for, in case anyone’s forgotten: spreading and supporting good ideas. Amongst other good things like persecuting irresponsible retail chains…

  6. Charles

    Just a word of caution, Gloria mundi; I’ve invited the congregated people to approach the coffin (at a crematorium), and nothing could have felt more awkward when no-one at all did so. Check it with the family first, and tell them to let everyone expect it. Better still, give a very good reason why they should participate in this frighteningly unfamiliar act – ‘Wot? Touch the horrible thing? Why?’ As a celebrant you’ll need to have established a very close and trusting relationship with these people. Ru and Claire understand this, but they’re the ones who’ve done the whole thing with the family, they haven’t simply been phoned by the busy and distracted funeral director to provide a small element in his service.

    Also, I remember a little spat I had some time ago here with Tony Piper about what I called ’embarrassing drama’ – I think we were both right and both wrong, but as my brother said before our mother’s funeral, in reply to my simple suggestion that we could blow out her candle at her committal: “Well, okay, but these things can so easily fall flat.”

    When ritual is prescribed it’s easy. It’s so much harder to create original ritual, which is of course why we rely so much on words in secular ceremony (and yes, done well they are far better than embarrassing drama). When such ritual works, it works because it’s invented by the people it’s working for; and what’s more, that way lies the opportunity for spontaneity. But once they’ve experienced a death in the family, and had their rationed 45 minutes with the co-op arranger (or whoever) to make every last decision in one fell swoop, they are very often feeling far from creative – stunned expresses it better – and need familiariy. Words, about the person’s life, in attractive prose that evokes memories and a recognizable image of their loss, bring a sense of that familiarity lacking in some rituals.

    Which is where religious ritual exposes its vulnerability. I have cringed at its crassness before now, refused to collude with its presumptiousness; and I’m not the only one.

    Give me words and, over being asked to kneel to a god or any other ideal I don’t believe in, any time.

  7. Charles

    Well, I’m almost completely with you on the big-ticket items, Rupert, but I also think an element of risk can bring vitality to the proceedings and to those conducting them. Wonky moments, far from being disastrous, are often the most memorable. It’s the falling flat, as Jonathan has it, that’s so bloody awful. Yes, and the dreading what’s next – I’m with you there.

    Words were made for dialogue. Celebrants tend to monopolise the conversation, need to give their listeners a break.

  8. Charles

    Risk is almost essential Charles, you’re right. But of course, the place where you are least able to risk anything is at the crem.

    At a recent natural burial, in my preamble I invited people to come up and sign the coffin at any point during the proceedings, in fact specifically before we were preparing to carry the coffin up the hill to the grave. Nothing spoils this moment of practical and emotional communal steeling for the task ahead than a queue of people clutching marker pens.

    The funeral proceeded, with many spontaneous happenings and marvelous unplanned heartfelt moments, but no-one actually wrote anything on the coffin until nearly an hour had passed. I had started to get seriously worried that they weren’t going to do it at all. If it had been at the crem, they wouldn’t have, or would have been queuing at the end to scribble something on it like it was a book of condolence, full of awkward obligation and embarrassment.

    As I’m sure Jonathan will agree, we are spoiled down ‘ere with how many good, different NBG’s there are within an achievable distance, and how many services we do, winter and summer at them, and that’s before we’ve even opened ours.

    The ceremonial freedom they offer is quite mindblowing compared with even the most flexible and atmospheric of crems. Even the worst of weather is nowt compared to an irate, incoming funeral director and a grumpy chapel attendant whose mates with him.

  9. Charles


    ‘At the heart of great ceremony is performance that is not normal’.

    At the heart of great ceremony is also meaning, hence my agreement with you about religions currently being at an advantage.

    As this debate progresses, I’m optimistic people will make significant breakthroughs regarding rituals and symbols with new resonance/relevance to secular funerals.

    In 1984, George Orwell writes: ‘People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.’

    Religious or secular, our funerals show respect for the dead (body/soul) and allow closure for the living left behind. The presence of the deceased is itself extraordinary and dramatic, carried aloft to ‘centre-stage’ by undertakers or family members/friends rather than wheeled in on a stretcher/cart – a far easier but less moving mode of carriage.

    Laying flowers on the coffin or sprinkling it with Holy water are poignant symbols of love, respect, farewell bidding, along with readings, songs, three minutes of silence etc.

    I’m sure there are other rituals, existing and yet to be introduced, that are relevant to the faithless. Are secular funerals escaping the crems more?

  10. Charles

    Ah, what a good point you make, Richard. Et tu, Rupert. Nothing is holding back the evolution of the secular funeral like the crem, the worst place on earth to conduct a funeral.

    They don’t do religious funerals any favours, either.

    Still, that 20-minute slot, it gets the whole horrible business over nice and quickly, doesn’t it?

  11. Charles

    I think I’d rather wave goodbye at the church steps just as one does newlyweds as they drive off on honeymoon. Then again, we want to be with our loved ones to the very end, so following the hearse from church to crematorium for the final curtain closing is a natural desire. On that note, do many want to see the furnace part, too? After my recent church/crem experience, I’m more strongly favouring burial, the elements of earth and wind, the lowering of the coffin into a grave seems more poignant than the muzak, air-con and oven.

  12. Charles

    You are wholly in tune with the spirit of the age on this one, Richard. More and more people are doing just this – though it’s still not many. As Tony Piper has it, it’s all about vanishing points.

    The element of fire has few attractions when applied in a retort. Open-air cremation will alter your perceptions. Currently, burial has it for drama and finality.

    Where did you get those 45 mins from, Jonathan? Halve it, old son. Then knock off a couple more.

  13. Charles

    Elements of ritual are weaving their way slowly into funerals now because the families want them. The processing of families behind the hearse – the ‘file past’ at the end of a service, the families who come forward and touch or kiss the coffin as they enter or leave the crem, the bringing forward of flowers or ‘gifts’ to the coffin, especially during periods of music filled reflections (which can be such painful moments because the music will have been chosen to be relevant and will therefore be emotionally charged, the lighting of candles and the blowing out of the candles at the end of the service and keeping a candle to light again whenever needed – taking a flower from the coffin to press, sitting by the coffin throughout – all of these elements of ritual, none of which are uncomfortable, cringeworthy nor compulsory, are fast becoming everyday occurrences in my experience and funerals are the better for it. They are no longer spectator events. Things are changing as we type.

  14. Charles

    Ever tried to encourage people to sit near the front at a funeral? There’s the family, then an unseemly rush for the seats at the back! But we celebrants do try to get people to participate – honest!
    I like words and I take great care about putting them in the right order – and when you get a smile or a gasp or a sob or a hearty laugh, you’re getting participation.

  15. Charles

    Dear Quokkagirl,
    {great name..}
    If you go to either The Natural Death Centre’s website, or my company,www.thegreenfuneralcompany.co.uk you will find under “press” some stuff I have written in support of this campaign. Anyone know a good QC who might work for free? Does Geoffrey Robinson read this?

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