By Richard Rawlinson
Ed’s note: Richard wrote this for us at a time when the market in blog posts about ritual was approaching saturation. There’s good stuff here, so we’re posting it now, timeless seasonal greeting and all.
…that remains the question. In order to express a meaning you need to establish what the meaning is you’re seeking to express – whether by word, act or symbol. Without meaning, the practical reason for disposing of a rotting corpse is hygiene. As a fond, finite and formalised farewell to someone we love and shall miss, a funeral clearly means more.
To mark a death, we pay tribute to a life. By setting aside an official occasion to do so, emotions are aroused which accentuate the loss we’re feeling. This is deemed good as it helps give closure by preparing us for the ultimate parting – when the curtains close on the body, or it’s lowered into the ground, to be with us no more.
A religious funeral’s meaning is exactly the same as that of a secular funeral – except for the fact it offers hope that death is the beginning of a journey towards peace with God. When you take eternal salvation out of the equation, it’s the same – a fond, finite and formalised farewell to someone we love.
The most meaningful ritual of funerals must surely be the presence of the deceased. Being physically close to a beloved dead person feels extraordinary. Having already grieved the loss for several days, we may yet still be unprepared for the upsurge of emotions on seeing the coffin – let alone the face of the deceased in repose if the lid is kept open. No sooner have we grown accustomed to it, the committal shocks again with its absolute finality. He/she is going, going, gone. Forever. Per sempre. Na zawsze. Jamais. Für immer.
So a key purpose of a funeral is to instruct the living in acceptance of death. In both religious and secular funerals, the celebrant collaborates with the bereaved to give a dignified, relevant, moving and loving send-off that helps the living come to terms with their loss.
If a chief aim is to bring emotions to a crescendo to aid closure, what words, actions and symbols best inspire ‘healthy sadness’? We have the essential presence of the body, along with the ultimate tearjerker of its departure. We have eulogies that capture the essence of the deceased, along with poems and other readings. We have music, the most moving art form of all, and, even better, music accompanied by lyrics. We have contemplative moments of remembrance, and processions past the coffin for intimate farewells.
We have buildings with meaning too. Church interiors are often designed to inspire wonder; they’re dramatic backdrops for rituals that appeal to sight, sound, smell, touch, taste and even the sixth, supernatural sense. The chapels of crematoria, not being theatrical Baroque or Gothic in style, are nevertheless arranged so those present can face the drama around the coffin. There’s the inevitable comparison with a place of worship, but they can just as readily be compared to a theatre. The principle of the layout is the same in a chapel as it is in a theatre or even a classroom, a platform for participants whether priests, actors or lecturers. Just as a priest has his altar, an actor his set and a lecturer his slide show, so can a celebrant have scripts and props that give performance resonance. But which script and what props?
Some here have assumed I’m an advocate of more ritual in secular funerals. As a passive observer, I’ve listened to a couple of differing opinions but have formed no firm views. In truth, I’ve been discouraged that ideas don’t spring to mind intuitively, leaving a suspicion that struggling too hard to contrive more ritual implies the proposition itself may be unworkable.
One significant obstacle seems to be reconciling both diversity and individuality. How can a prescribed ritual or standardised wording resonate with an eclectic, perhaps multi-faith, audience and one unique person? Perhaps the answer is any secular ritual must avoid atheistic and theistic specifics to form universal statements about death and bereavement. We all love, we all die, we’re all affected when those we love die.
So without further ado, let’s throw a handful of ideas out there that are sufficiently general, and designed to move us in order to heal us – positive tearjerkers for healthy sadness. In office brainstorms, we say there’s no such thing as a bad idea. This is blatantly false but is nevertheless useful to rid us of inhibitions. By hearing both good and bad ideas, we’re then better able to compare and contrast in a process of elimination. Two half-baked ideas can merge to form something excellent.
To signify the importance of the arrival of the coffin, perhaps a bell should be rung to remind us to stand and to focus our thoughts. Individuals could then choose between a silent procession or one accompanied by music.
Perhaps the celebrant should wear something more distinctive than a somber business suit, just as a master-of-ceremonies at a formal dinner wears a uniform that sets him apart from the guests in regular black tie.
Perhaps the entire ceremony could be structured more formally. It could begin with a formally scripted greeting to fit all ceremonies: beautifully crafted words that remind us of the gift of life, and the significance and inevitability of death. The middle section could blend prescribed words with open parts for eulogy and poignant songs, readings or prayers. The set words could perhaps introduce the unique parts to enhance their poignancy and keep them on message. The climactic ending could return to prescribed words, reflecting universal feelings when saying goodbye.
Perhaps it should be encouraged as integral to the ceremony that the audience files past the coffin, laying down flowers as a physical symbol of respect. Perhaps candles could be lit on the way out as a final sign that the deceased lives on in memory.
Nothing radical there. No suggestion we start to don death masks, or introduce communal wailing and beating of breasts. Too churchy? Well, the Church does ritual well on the whole, and the hope of eternal salvation has been conscientiously avoided. Too traditional? Those who equate progress with ever increasing informality will no doubt find it so.
Happy New Year!