What makes a good funeral?

Charles Cowling


Posted by Vale

Would a traditional religious ceremony with six lacklustre hymns, a perfunctory celebrant and no mention of the person in the coffin count as one? I expect most of us would say no – but, sometimes, I wonder.

We often talk about the grand and the personal, the expressive and moving as though that sort of funeral represented some sort of ideal. They can certainly be wonderful events and, if they are what you want, there is no doubt that they can provide that sense of release and transformation that both fulfils and allows people to move on in their grieving.

But what strikes me most about grief is its malleability. It will accommodate itself to every human tradition and style. Buried like the Muslim within 24 hours? Grief accommodates this. Held for weeks while the house is made ready as they do in Ghana? Grief accommodates this, as it does for burning, sky towers or ship burials.

So what makes a good funeral? There is no common factor that I can see, other than the conviction amongst the mourners that they are doing what is right – by society and by the person they have lost. If they have confidence there then grief will accommodate whatever arrangements need to be made.

In that sense, if a family goes away feeling that a ceremony was what someone wanted and, above all, was the right thing to do, even the most threadbare won’t have been without some comfort.

So, what makes a ‘good funeral’?  Is it, in fact, a sense of duty fulfilled and not, as we sometimes seem to suggest here, the theatre or therapy of the memorable event? Discuss…

5 thoughts on “What makes a good funeral?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Sorry, it was that ‘discuss’ instruction, I do have a tendency to be preachy!

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    That, Jehdiah, is masterful – in fact, it’s textbook stuff, as it were, and should go straight into the training manual. Thanks for an enlightening read.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    What makes a good funeral? My favourite description is the Celtic one of ‘a group of family and friends accompanying the soul on the last mile of its earthly journey.’ Whatever you feel about ‘soul’ there is always a sense of ‘journey’ and ‘transition’ – for the deceased, for the family, and for other attendees too.

    Everyone longs for recognition and to be heard. Families have stories to be listened to about the death itself, but that isn’t necessarily aired at the funeral, but it does inform the tone and mood of the funeral. As you say the family wants to get it right for the one in the coffin (Duty?)

    At a large service ( Theatre?) it’s when the music, tributes, readings and goodbyes flow and meld into one seamless story with highs and lows and laughs and tears and a sense of completeness and satisfaction from the family that a good job has been done. When the family feels listened to, comforted and accompanied on this part of their journey then that can be considered a good funeral.

    What about ceremonies where, by choice, there may only be 5 or 6 immediate close family mourners. (Therapy?) This calls for a very different ceremony. This is intimacy on a new level – there is no need for a ‘story’ and the ceremony is more about enabling/facilitating their private goodbyes, about choosing the right readings to take them to the edge of grief’s chasm without pushing them in, and finding the right words of comfort and hope to give them a lifeline in case they slide in at some future moment. These achingly private spaces can also be recognized as good funerals.

    Sometimes there is no love for the deceased, but there is still a strong sense of healing/therapy in doing the right thing and sending X off with some sense of propriety. What about the family who stand in complete silence as Dad disappears, even in the hatred and relief at seeing him go there is still a sense of dignity in doing the right thing and being ‘present’.

    Bad funerals are where there is no communication, no connection between the parties involved. The duty is performed of simply having the service without any sense of representation. The chapel can be full to overflowing and still be a bad funeral. There can be a sense of shallowness even within duty that leaves people wanting something more.

    And what of direct cremation? Is a good funeral merely the most cost effective way of disposing of the corpse? Can that be a good funeral even with no one present, no-one accompanying? If it is fulfilling the express wishes of the deceased – she was listened to and her wishes accommodated… but is it cold comfort for those banned from the accompanying? Who is the good funeral for after all?

    Is it the GRIEF that accommodates the different rituals? Does GRIEF need to be malleable to encapsulate a good funeral? Isn’t the funeral more of a vehicle for the grief? The funeral marks the transition from body here to body not here, that’s what the grief is about surely? Less good funeral… more good grief?

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Jeremy Brooks

    I think the funerals where I feel that I have done a good job are those where the family feel that the person has been truly represented as Jonathan says. It is not uncommon for people to comment that it felt like I knew the person – though it is probably true to say that I don’t say a great deal about the person myself, but allow space for people’s own memories.

    And as Jonathan says, to allow people to acknowledge the weaknesses of a person is far more important than allowing an impression of a plaster saint having been amongst us.

    I have been fascinated by the various posts on the time given to prepare a funeral. In 15 years of clergy ministry, I have done 3 funerals in a day before and up to 5 in a week. Of course, it is not possible to devote 10 hours of work to a funeral in these circumstances – funerals can only take about 10 – 20% of my total workload. But I don’t think that means that I have been unable to give families a ‘good funeral’.

    I think many clergy are able to offer a good service, because we have a structure to use within which we can allow flexibility and the chance for a family to feel that the person is truly represented. Because they have asked me to take the service – as opposed to a civil celebrant – there will always be a Bible reading and there will always be an address from me, setting forth the hope that the Christian faith offers in the face of death. This is not telling people telling people that they are going to hell if they don’t believe – simply saying that a funeral has a forward-looking focus as well as a backward one.

    It is not for me to be able to say whether I offer a good funeral, but I know that I have had enough positive feedback from families to feel that what is offered is generally appreciated.

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    The commonest criticism, or praise, of a funeral springs from the observation that it didn’t, or did, represent the person in the coffin.

    The way to represent a person can conform to no formula; twenty artists would paint or sculpt twenty very different portraits in different materials, any or all of which could convey something of the essence that is what makes us recognize someone.

    So, if there is indeed a duty to be done, it would seem to me to be a duty to the dead person that’s the one that may set us off on a grieving path leading to resolution; a duty to custom, for instance, could be fulfilled but with a sense of guilt for betraying the best interests of the dead person who, let’s remember, can’t move and has to rely on us to carry her in the right direction.

    But having said that, I can’t say that the way I arranged and conducted my mother’s funeral was slavishly adherent to what her own wishes may have been, and it was healing for me and my siblings to boldly state a truth about her that was not necessarily comfortable to hear – especially not for her neighbours, who thought the world of the dear little old lady and had no idea of the less palatable aspects of her personality. So there, I’ve just contradicted myself. Except that I haven’t.

    Charles Cowling

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