Does this make the case for a secular funeral ritual?

Charles 39 Comments

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


  1. Charles

    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.

  2. Charles

    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 be two or three minutes. Take ownership! As for the music being the best of a poor choice – ??? At the two creme I most often work at, you can have whatever you want. It’s up the celebrant/FD to sort for you.

    And – in skywriting please Charles – the main part of the funeral doesn’t have to be in a crem anyway!!

    Maybe we celebrants should work harder at ritual elements (of which there has been much discussion in the hallowed halls) or maybe we should just nick elements of the CofE ritual!

  3. Charles

    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?

  4. Charles

    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!

  5. Charles

    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 the writer does need to be aware that while he (she?) thinks he is saving his family from a burden he might actually be depriving them of a much needed opportunity.
    It all comes down to communication and time.

  6. Charles

    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…

  7. Charles

    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!!

  8. Charles

    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 of a funeral playscript should address the death of this person, and what proportion should address the death of each one of us? Whatever your answer, there’s clearly a role for the universal – the generic, if you like.

    It’s a lot to ask of a bereaved person that they improvise/cobble together the ‘rituals’ of their bereavement and, in the time allowed, come up with something which is meaningful.

    A highly-evolved ritual/liturgy is a playscript wrought by many hands and created for ensemble performance, and it’s clever how it achieves that: it exerts an expectation on people to participate, and it enables them to do so in ways they find manageable.

    The problem with the bespoke playscript is that it is often a one-person show — stand-up. What’s more, while personalisation is all well and good, it’s possible that a lot of good work, because it is not getting pooled, is getting lost. There’s an awful lot of good stuff being created that would be even more useful if it was being shared.

    Let’s not overlook the value of the familiar script. It is not inflexibly prescriptive. Look how many ways there are of doing ‘Hamlet’. A script that’s any good moulds itself to the contours of the individuality of the person who’s died. It has an elastic quality, too. Just as you can cut lines, so you can also add some.

    Ensemble performance, manageable roles, a familiar script. Isn’t that what a bereaved community of people needs?
    Every playscript needs a director. In the case of a funeral playscript, the principal role of the celebrant should be just that. The role of author-director-leading actor is an unusual one outside the funeral industry. And what do you suppose is the reason for that?

    It is arguable that the enormous quantities of energy poured into the creation of funeral playscripts would be better pooled, not dissipated. And I am sufficiently fearless to make that argument, both for argument’s sake and because I am a great believer in not reinventing the wheel every time you need a wheel.

  9. Charles

    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.

  10. Charles

    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,


  11. Charles
    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 do and their flexibility is appreciated.

  12. Charles

    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 of banality and ever-so-niceness going on, let me tell you – grief therapy-lite.

  13. Charles

    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 comes in. You do have to tell them if you don’t want them to wear black. And a candle is a powerful point of contemplative focus. All this is familiar in our culture. Worn-out remnants of Victorian death culture if you don’t like them, comfortingly familiar common language of grief if you do.

    Maybe we should give up trying to analyse and simply learn more about good funerals in action. Maybe we need an erotics of celebrancy, rather than a hermeneutics, to distort Sontag for a moment.

  14. Charles

    Richard, the C of E is the Established Church. It is there for all of us. More than that, it has always been delightfully fuzzy in its theology or, as we say in now-speak, inclusive, characterised by feelgood rather than fervour (I’m not talking about the spiritually arrogant evangelicals). Theologically, it has nailed its trousers to the fence. I’d have thought it the perfectly adaptable to today’s various ill-defined folk religions.

    It is quite distinct from your own denomination (am I allowed to call it that?) Catholicism is for people who have nailed their colours to the mast, a club with rules. Chalk and cheese.

  15. Charles

    “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 won’t be there; let other people do whatever they like.

  16. Charles

    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. Make useful suggestions. provide useful situations, and leave it at that. And as “Time’s winged charriot” hurries near, you can let go and relax in the knowledge that they’ll do what suits them. Especially if all concerned have been able to talk about it even a bit.

    Like you Margaret, I’ve always been able to supply the family with any and every sort of music they want, and that’s on CD, we don’t have Wesley. Non-issue, with a bit of effort it can be done.

  17. Charles

    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!

  18. Charles

    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.

  19. Charles
    Richard Rawlinson


    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 at all. I concur with Ru that all have their drawbacks if not done well.

    The only blog in which I’ve opposed choice is the recent one about the choice by Islamic fundamentalists to interpret their faith in despotic ways that harm others. I also agree with you that some evangelicals can be too imposing of their beliefs on others, albeit without violence one hopes. Ditto some atheists.

    My question though is why would an atheist (someone more than a person who simply doesn’t go to church) want to embrace the CoE as something ‘there for all of us’? Sure, an atheist can select aspects of the Book of Common Prayer if desired, but wouldn’t they be better off with a good civil celebrant officiating? Surely, the CoE clergy can only accommodate so much in a funeral?

    The other question is would the CoE be in healthier shape if it was less fuzzy about faith, scripture and doctrine? Could its eagerness to conform to secular mores be its downfall? Is it even being invaded by stealth? In fact, Catholicism, although less open to individual interpretation, faces the same schizophrenic ‘trad versus sandalista’ issues at times. But there’s also substance and clarity for those who respect the authority of its teachings. Rather than offering a harsh list of rules (it’s perfectly possible to be a small state secularist and strive to obey your Church), I prefer to see the Church as offering guidance to God’s truth and love. But I know we part ways on this.

  20. Charles

    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 job of pointing several ways at once. That would be a problem for a people prone to zealotry, but Brits are famously/notoriously averse to ‘enthusiasm’.

    Most Brits would reckon what comes next to be the Great Perhaps. I imagine a lot of Anglican clergy are broadly in sympathy with that. The argy-bargy of recent years (homosexuality, antifeminism) seems to have renewed disillusioment with whatsoever is doctrinaire.

    As to who officiates, C of E ministers can often carry this off with an agreeable authority, and grievers like to have the imprimatur of a person in whom powers are vested. It’s the quality of holiness that makes all the difference, and it informs the quality of performance — that, and plenty of pulpit time.

  21. Charles

    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 have delightful personalities and an easy authority, who I envy something rotten, who perform beautifully (as far as one can tell from 15 minutes of funeral whilst I check “specs, script…”etc yet again.) I’ve also heard CofE ministers who have, to be charitable let’s just say NONE of those estimable qualities, IMAO. Ditto secular celebrants, no doubt. I find it almost impossible to generalise any more.

    If you want to arrange a funeral, get to know your vicar/minister/celebrant a bit, don’t just take the one the FD tells you is good. Phone us and talk to us. Take recommendations from people you trust. You need the one good person who suits you, whether that’s the ArchB of C, The Pope, or the most unholy sinner in town.

    Little story, true, too: a family round ‘ere initially wanted a secular celebrant of the more tolerant variety (maybe a hymn and a prayer, we’ll see) but a very old family friend was a nonconformist minister, and they “felt” they should use him. He turned out to belong to a small evangelical church; there was much talk of holy brotherhood, much “enthusiasm.” Most of the congregation were under 50, none of them it seems were evangelical. They were very, very unhappy. Moral: don’t choose an old friend because he is an old friend.

    The CofE is an old friend of mine (upbringing etc) but I wouldn’t choose a reverend old CoE friend of mine, brilliant though he is, because his excellent qualities are not the excellent qualities I’d want.

  22. Charles

    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.

  23. Charles
    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 leading to the moral: don’t choose an old friend because he is an old friend.

  24. Charles
    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.

    The Church is happy to oblige but reluctant or duty-bound to moving totally into the realms of bespoke services if this means abandoning God and their calling. They must quietly hope that even the most unobtrusive presentation of God in such services might invigorate a glimmer of faith in those members of the community they serve.

  25. Charles

    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 of the class in this debate. But I do feel that if it is sensitive and effortful the C of E can regain territory. As I say, there are now a lot of below-par, semi-educated celebrants practising out there, trotting out sentimentalities and banalities.

    Not winning many friends, am I?

  26. Charles
    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 about 30 so far, not that I;m a counter! It doesn’t matter if one side comes out as a majority and one side a minority. If ritual trumps bespoke five to one, it doesn’t dispute the fact that for some a truly unique funeral script is their strong preference.

  27. Charles
    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.

  28. Charles

    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 individualism (not acceptable to RC priests,) they can and should take back funerals from secular celebrants? Onward Christian soldiers. Or kind of flexible Christian soldiers armed with tasers not long-swords.

    If I’m at all right in my crude summary, this is a personal preference of yours. Many, many people now want a not-the-vicar ceremony. They may be Perhapsists, they may want a ceremony that says much about the person who has died, they may also want a hymn or some Christian element. They may (much less often, I find) actually be atheists, or close to that position. So surely, whatever anyone’s personal preference, the urgent task is to improve the standard of celebrants, if it is as low as you tell us it is.

    I think you’re right, manner is all-important, especially when hearts are over-full, but you seem dismissive of words when they are written by a celebrant based on what a family says to them, but all for words of liturgy. Both comprise words. To some in the congregation, the liturgy is surpassingly beautiful, and to some of those again, it will also be true. But to others, it means a great deal less, or is even alienating. Surely what those people need is a really good celebrant? Looked at from, as it were, a neutral position, responding to what we find “out there.”

    As for ritual – we were, on the GFG, at one stage talking over town it might be possible, or not, to develop more ritual elements for funerals that are not taken by an ordained minister. We seem to have given up.

    Is the choice only Christian liturgy, or semi-educated celebrants who are too fond of their own voices and can’t do ritual? Well, I really hope not, because that will leave a lot of funeral-goers stranded.

    Maybe it’s very difficult to separate one’s open feelings and preferences, what “should” happen, from what does happen, and could happen better in its own terms.

    Footnote: I tend to find, leaving out anything about the words I have put together myself, that the congregation certainly listens to what family members and friends are saying to them.

    Richard, your final sentence, given your own faith position, seems very fair-minded to me. But bespoke ceremonies tend to have a few/some ritual elements, and this gets regularly ignored.

  29. Charles
    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 case by case. The ongoing search is, it seems, to get the balance right between reflecting the views and wishes of the audience back at them through personalised eulogy and ritual, prayer and hymns when required.

    My personal preference is away from celebration of the life of the deceased and towards the universal statements of faith ritual. But that’s because I see God as central to life and death. That’s because Catholicism shows us how to return God’s love for each and every one of us.

  30. Charles

    Okay, let’s get serious. First, some people want a ceremony which is numinous, others want something matter-of-fact and 100% dead person-centric. Second, I don’t dismiss words based on what the family has told the celebrant, but I would point out that it’s often not awfully well done. For example, the flatlining chronological life story served up as a eulogy is pervasive.

    Culturally, we Brits haven’t been doing funerals well since the Reformation. I don’t believe in fine tuning things as they are.

    It may be the case that many celebrants overrate the value of a funeral and, therefore, the importance and value of their role. I think that people try to cram too much into what has become a very discrete event, one from which most FDs dissociate themselves and, afterwards, the celebrant would not feel comfortable at the funeral tea. What does that say?

    Grief and feelings of loss exist on a continuum. A funeral on its own cannot cure grief, though it can make a big difference. However, unless it’s joined up to the before and the after, and is seen to be a point, albeit an important one, on that continuum, it risks being a non sequitur.

    Everyone involved in dying, death and bereavement needs to talk to each other more. And the general public need to wake up and smell their own death. It’ll make living far more precious, and it’ll make them better people.

  31. Charles

    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- it does need to be joined up, we need a different approach, and as you know, an ongoing theme of mine is the lethal effects, for the individual and for our culture, of trying not to acknowledge our own mortality.

    Two problems; you don’t believe in fine tuning things as they are (hence the splendid and truly co-operative community funerals model.) But fine tuning things as they are is exactly what celebrants have to do every week, if they are to deliver the best available funerals for this family here and now. We can’t all just grind to a halt!

    Second problem: you feel Brits haven’t been doing funerals well since the Reformation. That’s a fascinating view and prompts a request for a reliable cultural history of funerals, if there is one at the level we’d need. But it’s a huge judgement. If there is a real relationship between a culture (local or regional) and the individuals working on the before-during-and-after dying, then how can it be that we haven’t been doing them well? Didn’t Victorian funerals “suit” Victorian people?

    That’s not to say our funerals “suit” our culture(s) I agree that the times are out of joint, as far as that goes, because too often we don’t acknowledge human mortality, and that has a huge impact on our funerals.

    I wrote way back, perhaps a bit pompously, that a funeral isn’t an artefact. We’re more used now to recognising works of art as products of a culture, e.g. non-European art isn’t inferior because they didn’t do perspective. Our funerals are not inferior to funerals in the USA because we tend to be more reserved in our expression of grief; that’s simply a cultural difference.

    I thought part of our severe misgivings about contemporary funerals is that they are sometimes out of context (Victorian-style formality and the suppression of emotion) and sometimes simply efforts at mortality-awareness avoidance?

    Let’s start with the simple, important, immediate things: all involved in dying, death and bereavement need to talk to each other more. Is it beginning to happen?

  32. Charles
    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 wasn’t. However, I guess, we don’t know who reads this blog without contributing – the silent majority who dip in undetected from different corners of the globe.

    I must also add that, despite being surprised by the archness of a few, I’ve learned a lot from participating in debate here. I genuinely never thought much about death a year or so ago. And what I’ve learned is not just from researching my own blogs. I’ve learned more through listening and observing.

  33. Charles

    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 – much, much more that could be done to make the service real to the people who knew her.
    I came away from my mother’s funeral refreshed at what I had experienced, but on reflection think we could have done better.
    I see all these experienced people putting very valid points together about a ‘new ritual’ (or not) but at the end of the day aren’t we basically talking good practice ? Because it’s not what we want it’s what the family wants.
    I learnt two things from my police service that are relevant here. From my time in public protection, it is paramount that the client always wherever possible gets their preference. And from my time in training, we always share all of our resources – plagiarism isn’t always bad when you want to give your students the best service.
    It seems a bit self-serving of me to suggest a conference when it would so obviously benefit me, but the debate on here would be multiplied by a thousand with face to face contact.
    (Or maybe you do have a conference – am I being completely daft ?)

  34. Charles

    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.

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