Has the funeral procession hit the buffers?

Charles Cowling

Romany funeral, Warwick, 2007. Source.


Posted by Charles


We’ve talked quite a lot on this blog recently about ritual. There have been times when a better and more accessible word might have been theatre.

For what is a funeral if it is not theatre?

The playscript for the drama we call a funeral, together with its delivery, is, for the most part, the responsibility of the ceremony leader. But funeral directors get to play a major part in act one, scene one, the procession, and, though they love dressing up for it, I think many of them have lost sight of the story they’re supposed to be telling and, therefore, the role they are supposed to be playing.

The story of a funeral procession is that of the last journey ever taken by a dead person here on Earth. The dead person is accompanied, as Thomas Long expresses it, with love and lamentation to the Edge of Eternity. The element of accompaniment is central. 

It’s a ritual journey, obviously. The dead person’s last actual journey was probably to the hospital by ambulance. There, on their deathbed, family and friends hopefully got a chance to say goodbye. A funeral re-enacts this ritually, theatrically: a ritualised final journey followed by a ritualised goodbye.

In the olden time a funeral procession could make its way to the place of farewell at a dramatically slow pace (there’s no practical reason for going slowly). Those whom the procession passed amongst would stop and doff their hats and bow and pay their ritual last respects. It was a good show.

That’s all been consigned to the past, borne away by traffic and indifference. Keeping a procession together now through traffic lights and roundabouts is wing-and-a-prayer stuff. The first 100 meters works well enough, the undertaker leading the hearse at a stately walking pace down the street. Like all good actors, s/he is in character. So are the understrappers. Splendid. Then we get to the main road and s/he dives in. The actors come out of character, most of them – all the while keeping up appearances. Heaven knows what talk they talk, what jokes they swap, let’s not speculate. This part of the journey is not about stately procession, it’s about getting to the crem on time. It’s a hiatus, an ellipsis. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

Which is why, in a film, unless it’s a satirical comedy, you’d jump cut to when the church or crematorium hoves into view and the occupants of the hearse get back in character. The funeral director hops out and carries on where s/he left off earlier for all of 200 metres max. And stops just short of the coffin’s destination.

If a playwright wrote it like that you’d shoot him. For this is the point at which the principal actors are joined by The Crowd. When you’ve got that many people on stage there must be ensemble action, a single focus of attention. We don’t get any of that. As the limousine doors are opened and the occupants unfurl under the indulgent but prurient gaze of The Crowd, the Men In Black Macs are, severally, easing the coffin out of the hearse and doing things with flowers.

The procession has entirely lost its momentum, not in itself fatal, but it can never regain a sense of purpose because, by the time it is ready to move on once more, it’s far too close to journey’s end. It falls over the finishing line. The Crowd was never part of a procession. The minister declaimed “I am the resurrection and the life” to empty air and an organist. The Men in Black Macs probably put the coffin on the catafalque before everyone was in and sitting. It can work out a bit better in a church, where everyone is in first, but this denies The Crowd any processional role.

Could it be staged better? In theory, yes. A procession — for those who want one — needs at least 80 metres, a decent run-up. Everyone out of cars, on foot, standing tall. Coffin out, too. People formed up in some sort of order of precedence, leader/s (optional) in front of the coffin, stepping out as one, everyone playing their part, understanding the part they are playing, and quite possibly singing, too.

In practice, no. To do all that you need a gathering-place. Most funeral venues don’t have one of those.

So we’re down to one person walking in front of a car. This does retain an element of theatre. But you can’t help feeling that the grandeur and much of the point of the narrative has been lost, and that’s a shame.

Too much me, funeral directors, not enough us. 

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Jeremy Brooks
Jeremy Brooks
9 years ago

Fascinating stuff Charles – I love Thomas G Long’s writings and find he has some of the most sensible things to say on the subject. AS a result of reading his ‘Accompany them with Singing’, I have taken to inviting the whole congregation into the procession at the end of a church funeral. We only get as far as the lych gate and of course then the funeral cars take the coffin on to the crematorium but the number of people who have told me afterwards how much it has meant to them has convinced me that I am onto… Read more »

9 years ago

“The dead person is accompanied, as Thomas Long expresses it, with love and lamentation to the Edge of Eternity”. Love it, Charles. And I’m not so sure that you are right about the demise of the procession. For sure the motorcades are fraught and subject to road rage and lack of respect (when I was a boy, if you saw a hearse you had to hold your shirt collar until you saw a dog. Heaven knows why)and the sight of a community straggling on foot behind the bier a rare one – but the whole point of theatre is illusion… Read more »

Simon Ferrar
9 years ago

Hi Charles – wholly agree. This was one of the concerns we had when designing Clandon Wood. We made a concious decision that the hearse would be able to go no further than our glass pavilion, where the funeral service will be held. When the ceremony inside finishes, the outside ceremony can then begin. We see it more than just a service and then a committal. The procession becomes another critical and significant ingredient of the whole occasion; as important as the service and committal themselves. The coffin or shrouded body can be carried by any or all of those… Read more »