Hold up, hold on, stop crying your heart out

Charles 6 Comments


In a comment stream following a provocative post by someone or another, probably Richard, our religious correspondent, I suggested that because death generates chaotic feelings, many of which seek to vent themselves in disorderly behaviour, funerals ought to accommodate this. Our brilliant and erudite new commenter, Jenny Uzzell, reckons there’s no call for it.

Well, Jenny, I’m coming back at you on this. And I’m doing so because I want to examine what it is necessary for mourners to do at a funeral in order to promote their emotional health. This has to be, after all, the rationale of a funeral. A funeral must be cathartic. 

My text for this morning comes from The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg. If you haven’t got a copy, amazon one now.

The Irish folklorist Sean O’Suilleabhain tells the story of a peaceful wake and funeral in Leinster. Immediately after the burial, the son shouted, “This is a sad day, when my father is put into the clay, and not even one blow struck at his funeral!” In tribute to his father’s memory he proceeded to strike the man next to him. A scuffle broke out in the graveyard, more fights ensued, and the dead man’s son went home well pleased.

Ashenburg’s explanation of this behaviour, together with drunkenness, sexual licence, riot and practical jokery, is as follows:

Death can make those left behind feel piercingly, singularly alive in a way that nothing else can. Caterers will tell you that people eat much more at a funeral than a wedding. Jokes at a wake or after a funeral can seem disproportionately funny. And grief can mutate into fierce energy.

She concludes by proposing that the needs of the living overcome the duty they owe to the dead.

To me this makes intuitive sense. You? A conflict of emotions, all of them at boiling point.

And then I read in Caitlin Doughty’s blog a piece about the Aztec Goddess Tlazolteotl. It seems the Aztecs understood these things.  Tlazolteotl was a goddess who embodied contending characteristics, creative and destructive.

Here’s a description,  and I apologise for having lost the source:

Tlazolteotl (pronounced tla-sol-TAY-otl) is the Aztec Goddess of the earth and sex. She has four aspects, corresponding to the four phases of the moon. As the waxing moon, she is the young and carefree Maiden, the lover of Quetzalcoatl. As the full moon, she is the Mother of all. As the waning moon, she is the Great Priestess who cleanses the soul and destroys sin. As the new moon, she is the old Crone, Goddess of witches and witchcraft.

Tlazolteotl was also called “the eater of filth“, from her aspect as the Great Priestess. It was said that at the end of life, Tlazolteotl comes to the dying who confess their sins to her. She cleanses the soul, devouring the sins (the filth). As a mother Goddess, she is often depicted giving birth.

The hallmark of a so-called developed culture is the decorum of its members. The measures of decorum are self-regulation, propriety, civility. Decorum deplores disorder and requires self-control. 

Or, if you like, repression and denial. 

So, at a funeral, what behaviour is healthy and what behaviour is unhealthy? What is permissible and what is impermissible? What ought we to express and what should we bottle up? 

Does that Leinster funeral set us an example? 


Buy The Mourner’s Dance here

Visit Caitlin Doughty’s website here


  1. Charles

    I agree Charles, rage is often sublimated at a funeral, to all our detriment. We did a funeral for a woman who had lived a sad and chaotic life, the dysfunction of which had smeared across the rest of her family. Around her grave, one of her sisters shouted down at her, full of angry love. It was the single most transformative moment I have ever experienced at a funeral. Violent feelings need an outlet. We must find a way to integrate them into our rituals if we want to truly help.

  2. Charles

    Well, I can hardly fail to rise to this one, Can I?

    I actually had to back track to see what exactly it was that I said last time.
    I don’t disagree with you that an honest expression of emotion is cathartic and helpful, I just thought that in this country as it currently is people would (generally) not be comfortable with building it into funeral ritual. The great British Upper Lip, by and large, prevails and many people would go to any lengths to avoid any more than a polite and decorous dabbing at their eyes with a hanky during a funeral. Displays on a ‘Hamlet and Laertes’ scale would definitely be ‘not the thing’.

    I don’t think, however, that this is necessarily a good thing. If society does not ‘give permission’ for displays of extreme grief or, as Rupert says, honest anger, at a funeral when does it or can it? Repressed emotions are not usually a good thing and lead to far bigger problems and unresolved issues.

    Hoe to incorporate it into ‘funeral ritual’? That’s a harder one. I know that over the years Keith has had a few near misses with fights breaking out at funerals and a couple where they actually did and I’m not sure that that is a good thing. Where there is an outburst of somesort from a mourner at a funeral such as the one Rupert describes then the celebrant and/or the other mourners should be able to accommodate and acknowledge it as valuable. Where the ‘bunfight’ (I beleive that is the currently accepted term on this blog?) gets a little riske or loud or there is what might be considered ‘inappropriate humour’ well that can be a good thing too. It seems to me that all of this is bottom up rather than top down. Its things that people do on the spur of the moment that are psychologically healthy and helpful. But could they be deliberately be ‘built in’ to the structure of British funerals? I’m still unconvinced.

    But what do you think, Charles? How would you go about it?

  3. Charles

    Oh gosh, don’t ask me, Jenny. The world is divided into starters and finishers. I’m the very worst kind of starter. I just lob cats among pigeons and leave em to it.

    But I agree with you, you can’t prescribe this sort of thing, nor can you put signs up FIGHTS LIMITED TO 8 PEOPLE AT ANY ONE TIME. No, I guess it’s for people to acknowledge their emotions, and then to express them in, er, some way.

  4. Charles

    Well, at all crematoria it does say on the lectern something like ‘services limited to 20 minutes’. How about, on the front of the hymn books, ‘injuries limited to bloodied noses and dented egos: strictly no broken bones.’ It would give permission to fight, though it wouldn’t be very decorous; but what’s decorum got to do with mourning whatever way works best?

    But what (perhaps is the real question that needs to be asked) has a modern funeral got to do with grieving?

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