Hold up, hold on, stop crying your heart out

Charles Cowling


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

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[…] revisiting a post by Charles in January about whether a funeral can ever accommodate the venting of chaotic feelings generated by death. If […]

Jenny Uzzell
9 years ago

Not enough, I suspect. Perhaps the hymn book should also say no stripping? or not!

9 years ago

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?

Jenny Uzzell
9 years ago

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… Read more »

Rupert Callender
9 years ago

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.