Does this make the case for a secular funeral ritual?

Charles Cowling

 

Here’s an interesting and stimulating view of funerals from Guardian commenter Sussexperson:

Each to their own, and all that, but there are serious flaws in the “capturing the person” style of funeral. I’ve been involved in a depressingly large number of those over recent years, so can speak from bitter experience.

You don’t, as a rule, have very long to organise a funeral service: often, less than a week. Consequently, friends and family are scrabbling around for favourite readings, favourite music etc. If the funeral’s at the crem, you generally have to choose the least worst option from the music on offer rather than the single piece of music the dead person would really have wanted. If you’re tasked with giving the eulogy (or “saying a few words”, as it’s usually put), it’s just awful: the closer you were to the person, the less able you are to sum them up in a glib two-or-three-minute address. Result: the general attendees may come away saying the usual things about “a lovely service” or whatever, but you, the handful of nearest and dearest, know you’ve short-changed your relative/friend — that it’s all been a bit sketchy and inadequate. Horrible. And the guilt of that stays with you.

Myself, I’ve decided I don’t want to inflict all that on my own family/friends when I go. I’ve left instructions in my will that there’s to be no “saying a few words” or other DIY stuff at my funeral; it’s to be the traditional C of E Book of Common Prayer funeral service, and no nonsense. Not because I’m religious, but because it’s the most perfectly-constructed ritual I know of — and ritual is there for a reason. It externalises all the thoughts and feelings that people in grief (assuming anyone does grieve my departure!) can’t easily put into words themselves. It provides a framework. And it lets the mourners mourn, instead of foisting upon them the necessity of getting up an ad hoc bit of am-dram. Furthermore, by using the same ritual, the same words, that have been in use for centuries, it makes that single death part of a long continuity: something to be accepted as the fate of all mortals, not some exceptional outrage against natural law. Much more comforting, in my view.

Plenty of opportunity afterwards, over the funeral baked meats, for the anecdotes and personal reminiscences and quiet chuckles, if people want to do that.

 

In the same comments thread was this, from Remorsefulchekist:

I went to a Christian funeral and was bored witless.
I went to a Christian funeral and was moved beyond words
I went to an Atheist funeral and was bored witless.
I went to an Atheist funeral and was moved beyond words
Repeat with variations for Sikhs, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Agnostics, Buddhists . . . 

 

Guardian article here

 

 

 

 

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Charles
Guest

You make a very good point, Chris, about face to face contact and a debate. Do we have a conference? Yes, we do. The website’s not up yet, but the dates are announced: 6 & 7 September 2013 in Bournemouth. Watch the blog for the announcement.

We want to run a big, rich session on ritual and ways of remembering, together with something nuts-and-bolts-y for celebrants on rhetorical skills.

I do hope you’ll be able to come.

Chris
Guest
Chris

I don’t want to appear presumptuous (I am brand spanking new on here) but isn’t the answer to this a good old fashioned conference ? Of course there should be some ritual in the ceremony. Of course there should be some new, interesting heartfelt commentary about the deceased that fits the family’s wishes. Trouble is where do we draw that fine dividing line ? Before I set my sights on becoming a celebrant I had not really thought about funerals – they were a necessary evil that you attended. When my mother died, I realised that there was more –… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

GM, belated reply to: ‘all involved in dying, death and bereavement need to talk to each other more. Is it beginning to happen?’ I’m afraid I don’t think it is happening. Starting close to home here at GFG, it’s a lively community of civil celebrants and a few FDs but there remains a lack of clergy and, perhaps more importantly, ‘civilians’ who are not in the funeral business but who are confronting the subject of death – theirs and those they love. I, as a Christian who is not in the funeral business, am an exception here. I wish I… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

I value your encouraging words Richard, thank you. Seeing celebrancy as a protest against religion would indeed be a serious distortion of the role, and would suggest that such a person lacks a sense of vocation about the core job. Yes Charles, I think sometimes we celebrants do take our role too seriously, perhaps because it can all seem a bit scary. In a larger sense, it may be an impossible job. Or maybe we just like the sound of our own voices too much – like some clergy, etc etc.. I’m in agreement with almost everything you write above-… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

You’re fair-minded too, GM. Your passion about being a good civil funeral celebrant who serves those who call on your service shines forth. You’re different from those who seem to view their role as a protest against religion, who are disdainful of those with faith and only for the consensus achieved by mingling with their own kind. You’re also genuinely enquiring about how to improve your role and that of other civil celebrants, not just to win more business from the CoE but because you believe people deserve the best. You see the value of both ritual and bespoke scripts… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

I really don’t think we’re going to get far by opposing “there are a lot of lousy celebrants” with “there are a lot of inflexible ineffective clergy.” If you say so, on either side, one might say, but this is what an examiner would call “impression marking.” Charles, you’re sounding as if you actively want the CofE to “regain ground” from secular celebrants. Maybe you feel, presumably from your wide observation of different funerals, that CofE clergy have more authority, the ritual is better than anything secular celebrants can supply, and provided the clergy are tolerant of a degree of… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Footnote: all the world’s a stage. Good orators like to show off. Great orators don’t need to. If the ego is not controlled by a prescribed script those lacking self-constraint and judgement may have a tendency to over-indulge in waffle and sentimentality, hoodwinking themselves they’re serving the audience and not themselves. I’ve been appalled in churches when the priest is basking in the limelight of a banal (and indeed sacrilegious) sermon. I suddenly develop a bad cough.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

You’ll survive ruffling a few feathers, Charles. What you say is indisputable. There are good and bad civil and religious celebrants. Period (as they say in America). Those in holy orders maybe do have the upper hand due to their perceived authority, even among many seemingly non-religious folk. The prescribed, familiar, comforting, universal, hopeful, transcendent and divine words of the liturgy may well also have something to do with clerical dominance even in this secular age – whether delivered by mumbler of star. Both theories seem to be worth exploring further by soliciting opinion in debate. This blog stands at… Read more »

Charles
Guest

I’d agree with you, Richard, that Hamlet is still Hamlet, even if the title role is played by a mumbler. But it isn’t half a heck of a lot better if played by a star. I think that probably holds true for clergy. Secular celebrants tend to be far too dependent on words, which they carefully compose in the expectation that they will be hung upon. But funeral audiences tend to have minds and hearts too full to listen attentively. Manner probably counts for a lot more than matter. I’m conscious I have been the naughty boy at the back… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

PS If ministers were mere social workers offering pastoral care they could serve only the community, but their holy orders are also to serve God. This must be true even of the fuzziest and most flexible CoE minister. By serving God as His witness, they’re also serving the community – or at least the community who want this. Those who are unsure about whether or not they want it continue to call on the CoE for the rites of passage of marriage, baptism and funerals. Clerical authority is valued at such times as offering added significance to their life milestones.… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Interesting observation that ‘atheism is this country’s fastest declining religion’, Charles. I’m not sure but the theory rings true if, by this, you mean most secular folk are more inclined to the Great Perhaps than absolutes. I do think the quest for Truth will never go away despite the acceptance by many of agnosticism. Interesting also that clerical authority, perceived or otherwise, informs the quality of performance. A beauty of ritual and liturgy, in my opinion, is that the cult of the the personality of the deliverer is secondary to the words and their profundity. GM, I like your story… Read more »

Charles
Guest

You can’t be too careful, GM, that’s the truth of it. It is the custom to damn the Church on account of its damnable ministers. Choose your vicar with care. At the same time there is a probably growing number of simply-won’t-do secular celebrants practising. Choose your secular celebrant with the same care. Neither ‘fold’ scapes whipping, but that’s not the point. Caveat griever.

gloria mundi
Guest

The Great Perhaps,or the Great Certainty – it seems from Charles’ most recent that authority and the quality of performance are what matters, and that there is a quality of holiness that makes all the diff. I bow to Charles’ much greater, wider-ranging sampling of ministers and celebrants, but I have this irritating twitch again about generalisation, sorry. Some grievers want the imprimatur of which you write, Charles, others certainly don’t, the last thing they want is vested powers, whatever they believe. I’ve heard (over the Tannoy, whilst double-checking: “specs, script, CD, spinach-free gnashers, specs, script, CD…”) CofE ministers who… Read more »

Charles
Guest

It may be that I was a little sweeping, even mischievous, in my advocacy of the C of E’s duty to minister to folk of all manner of un- and part-defined spiritual leanings. Whatever I do believe (I don’t know) I don’t advocate the Church attempting to accommodate any other religion, which is what atheism essentially is — belief in the unprovable, just like all the rest. In any case, atheism is this country’s fastest declining religion. Catholicism directs its adherents to a precise, fixed point on a distant horizon. The C of E has always done a pretty good… Read more »

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Charles The CoE is a broad church made up of the trendiest vicars and the most traditional High Anglicans, hence the virtual schism into yet more disparate eccessial communities – and the returning to Rome of several of the latter. As you know, I’m not in the funeral business, and I’m not even a potential user of civil or CoE funeral services in the future. As I hope you will also have gathered, I’m all for choice so all can find a service that suits their beliefs and tastes, whether ritual with faith meaning, ritual as theatre or no ritual… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Phew! Thanks for the warning about tattoos, just in time….

So, balance is the thing, and quality.

Ru Callender
Guest

Gloria, I agree that ritual and truth needn’t be mutually exclusive, but anyone can light a candle. Actually, that’s always been my sticking point with candles; shouldn’t we be blowing them out? But you know what I mean. No amount of ritaualised stuff can replace good content, and bad theatre can arise from new rituals as much as the old. It’s a bit like this generation which is slowly awakening to the idea that tattoos are not a genuine substitute for charisma.

David Holmes
Guest

Sussexperson has been to some all too familiar (awful) funerals!

That said, I think the opinion piece is a little tongue in cheek? All crems offer a comprehensive choice of music. No-one wanting ten minutes to sum up a life should accept just two or three.

Book a ‘double slot’ and do what you really want to is my advice!

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

‘An erotics of celebrancy’….wonderful!!

gloria mundi
Guest

Spot on, Margaret. Isn’t it an odd kind of control drive to leave specific and inflexible instructions about one’s own funeral? Because you won’t be there. You’ll either be – not, in any form. Or looking down from heaven. Or looking up from the (very unfashionable) other place. (Any more alternatives? Purgatory I guess.) None of these states or non-state allow for interference or personal gratification, I’d have thought! Perhaps I’m being unkind. Perhaps its not control freakery, perhaps it’s a misplaced desire to make things easier for one’s family. But as you say, it doesn’t, necessarily. Let’s be generous.… Read more »

Margaret Nelson
Guest

“If the funeral’s at the crem, you generally have to choose the least worst option from the music on offer rather than the single piece of music the dead person would really have wanted.” Not at any of the crems in my area. With the Wesley system, you can have whatever music you want, otherwise there are CDs. Sounds like this person has experienced a few bad funerals. I don’t think it’s a good idea to impose too many “instructions” about your own funeral, even if you imagine that this will be helpful. Following them can make things difficult. You… Read more »

gloria mundi
Guest

Why should a brave truth and candles be mutually exclusive? Cannot a funeral have both theatre (the new bit) and ritual? (The familiar, communal bit.) I think we underestimate how many ritual elements there are in quite a simple funeral, elements which people recognise and respond to. And there’s also, or should be, plenty of room for uniqueness, for truths about one life, for uniqueness as well as familiarity. Yes, we need the particular and the universal both. You don’t need to tell people – any of them – to stand up, if they are sitting down, when the coffin… Read more »

Charles
Guest

Bit of both, old sock. There’s a lot of call for a sense of occasion (chap with fallen arches walking skilfully in front of a Dead People Carrier – that sort of thing). Ritual creates that. It doesn’t preclude passion and simplicity; it is the setting for it. I believe there is an appetite for ‘knowing where we are in all this’ in preference to wondering what’s next – oh, ah, it’s finished. Don’t we need both the particular and the universal, not to mention unfathomable mystery? I’d guess you bring those in to your services, but there’s a lot… Read more »

Ru Callender
Guest

I think that ritual can be one more thing we hide behind. One truth, delivered bravely and with passion is worth the lighting of a thousand candles.

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

that’s familiar script, not inflexible script!

Richard Rawlinson
Guest
Richard Rawlinson

Charles, I agree that an inflexible script is not inflexibly prescriptive. Good to see the ritual debate return. I also agree with much else said here but I’m afraid I part ways with Poppy’s view that the Church should be more flexible. Bending over backwards to accommodate all dilutes the point of religious ceremony: in a nutshell, faith in God and eternal salvation. Fine to offer civil funerals with or without elements of religion and familiar, universal ritual. But the clergy can’t go the other way and pander to atheism without undermining the faith. I say ‘can’t’, I’m know some… Read more »

Jonathan
Guest
Jonathan

Gotta dash, back later, but… first thing that strikes me is that Sussexperson has been unlucky enough to attend exclusively funerals conducted by bad celebrants.

There are a number of them out there, after all; but if I was asked to go to a religious service because someone I love died with that request, I’d have to think seriously about whether I wanted to be there to honour his wish, or elsewhere to fulfill my own need which would not happen in the presence of religious ritual, or any other contrivance.

’til then,

Jx

Charles Cowling
Guest

Fully agree with you, Poppy, about C of E funerals. And there are some very accommodating vicars around. I know of one who was perfectly happy to conduct the funeral of an atheist and bury him in the churchyard complete with eternity-denying headstone.

Charles Cowling
Guest

It’s important, I think, to distinguish between ritual and theatre. A ritual is an element or series of elements, both verbal and non-verbal, within the familiar script we call ‘What We Always Do When Someone Dies’. Or, if you like, it is the whole shooting match we call WWDWSD. In the one-off, one-performance-only, bespoke funeral playscript in favour today, what is termed ritual is more aptly termed theatre or production touches. Celebrants are working long hours and ransacking their brains to write unique playscripts for unique people, but let’s not forget that death is both particular and general. What proportion… Read more »

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

We did a talk at a local hospice as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week. It went down very well, but predictably enough was not well attended.

We are hoping to roll the talk out to WI groups and the like. We have a friend in a local WI group who suggested it but they were’t keen as they ‘didn’t want to think about that sort of thing’.
Still a long way to go!!

gloria mundi
Guest

Wise and useful words from Poppy and Jenny here. So we’re sorted – but how ab out the rest of our communities? How to spread the word? Talk to groups (WI, whoever). Get alongside the alternative model, the Community Funerals thing.

Or just ask God/Jove for a few thunderbolts in the right places…

Jenny Uzzell
Guest

I never got chucked out of Sunday School…but the teachers tended to go the other way when they saw me comming! I agree with all of the above. Ritual is important and the part about making it a part of a continuing community is very important (difficult to achieve with ‘new’ ritual, but not impossible!) The single most important thing here is time. Only having a week to arrange a funeral…why? That’s where the real failing is here…time to decide what you really want to do because you only get the chance once to get it right. Also, I think… Read more »

Poppy Mardall
Guest
Poppy Mardall

It’s like when you first go to Sunday School and the first thing they say is ‘you can ask anything’ – and then you do ask some pretty wild questions, and then you get chucked out!

Poppy Mardall
Guest
Poppy Mardall

I still don’t understand why the church isn’t willing to be MUCH more flexible about the level of religion in a ceremony. Why can’t we have prayers about buckets and spades and a hymn, and then a pop song and some bits about God and then someone standing up and saying they have no idea if any of it is true. If this is how the community feels, why not serve the community?

gloria mundi
Guest

I’m with Quokkagirl here. Whilst I agree that the power of the CofE ritual is a fine thing, most of things poor old Sussexperson rightly complains of can be avoided. I feel for her/him. But. Eulogies by someone close the the person who’s died don’t have to be a glib summary; they can be, and often are, simple statements of feeling, glimpses into what the person meant to the speaker, memories of meaningful events, little illustrative stories. Or a dreadful poem written by grandchild that is actually wonderfully effective because it cuts fills everyone up. And it doesn’t have to… Read more »

Quokkagirl
Guest
Quokkagirl

Of course secular services need ritual. It’s a poor celebrant who doesn’t observe this and shape the ceremony accordingly – just as it’s a poor minister who uses the C of E book of common prayer without taking time to convey its relevance to the person who has died and to the mourners.

The secret ingredients in all good funeral ceremonies are relevance, observation of ritual and delivery.