Image from the Purple Funeral Company
Though secular people are increasingly saying no to a religious funeral, we note that it’s taking them forever to do it. Why so?
Because, though they reject the theology, they like the ritual. Ritual is the antidote to chaos. It brings order. Everyone knows what to do. When death turns our life upside down, convention conquers confusion.
Which is why the Victorian funeral procession is still with us, too, albeit vestigially. Our modern grieving style does not go in for the same vulgar ostentation, and modern traffic has made stately procession mostly impossible, but we can still travel the first and the last twenty yards in reasonably good order just about, and people cling to that because, dammit, the way to do it is the way it’s always been done.
Once the undertaker and his or her bearers have bowed deeply and departed, that’s where, at a secular funeral, familiarity flies out of the window. Up steps the celebrant and no one knows what the heck to expect. And though the verdict of the audience afterwards may be that they liked the negative quality of the ceremony – it gave the dead person, not god, star billing – I think they often go home nursing a secret disappointment, a sense of something missing.
They miss the familiar script. Because they feel a funeral should be a custom.
Which is why they like the traditional dressing-up, the undertaker, clad in the garb of a Victorian gentleperson, handing over to someone dressed in medieval vestments. Secular civvies just don’t cut it – too dowdy, too individuated.
People miss the heightened, numinous language.
They miss the non-verbal elements of a proper ceremony: symbolism, movement, the elements that make for a sense of occasion, a sense of theatre, the transfiguration of the ordinary.
Because at a time like this they need ritual.
Secular celebrants take upon themselves an intolerable burden. It takes disparate qualities to be a good celebrant: intelligence, empathy, writing skills, inexhaustible powers of origination, a feel for theatre and the ability to hold an audience. It’s too hard. In a secular ceremony the celebrant is often a solo performer. That’s not the case in a ritual. In a ritual, the celebrant is an actor uttering familiar words, and is merely pre-eminent in an ensemble performance which involves all present. In a ritual, the celebrant may not be an awfully good actor – but Hamlet is still Hamlet. Here’s the point: in a ritual, a superb celebrant is a bonus, not the be all and end all.
Unique funerals for unique people. It’s a lovely idea. But come on, no one to whom death has happened actually wants a celebrant sitting on their sofa, sipping tea, saying brightly, ‘You can do what you like – we start with a blank piece of paper!’ When your brain is in bits that’s one of the most unhelpful things anyone could say to you.
Can a celebrant really reinvent the wheel every time he or she creates a ceremony? Of course not. Unique funerals for unique people is a pipedream, and the time has come to declare the experiment a partial success but an overall failure because it meant chucking out the baby with the bathwater.
Which is why secularists need now to move on and devise their own liturgy – or, if you prefer, something generic, formulaic, recycled, polished and proud of it, because that’s what a liturgy is.
Is it really possible to achieve a good funeral without improvising every time someone dies? Can a secular liturgy be both personal and universal? Can it be prescriptive and adaptable?
Why not? Religious ceremonies do it all the time. And the eulogy will always be the centrepiece.
A good secular ritual will be well-plotted, of course, and like all good rituals it will be a purposeful, meaningful journey.
It will visit places along the way which participants may find difficult, but which they will be glad they did. This is the nature of ritual: in order to be therapeutic it must sometimes be medicinal.
It will unashamedly plagiarise other rituals.
It will be created by a team of sorts in the spirit of the creators of the King James Bible:
Neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered: but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at the length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to that pass that you see.
It will happen. Some people want to create their own funerals from scratch; most don’t.