What a smashing funeral!

Charles 8 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

I’m revisiting a post by Charles in January about whether a funeral can ever accommodate the venting of chaotic feelings generated by death. If so, what behaviour can be ‘officially’ appropriated: formalised wailing, hurling plates against a wall, a punch bag in the vestibule, or even a bout of fisticuffs between mourners? (I hope Lyra Mollington can one day give us an eye-witness account, from a safe distance).

Regulars Rupert Callender and Jenny Uzzell contribute differing takes on this splendid debate. Ru recalls witnessing a woman shout down angrily at her sister in her grave, describing it as a transformative moment. He concludes it would be healthy to find a way to integrate violent emotions into our rituals.

Jenny, while agreeing unrepressed emotion is cathartic, questions whether it could ever be built into ritual in our decorous culture, saying outbursts need to be spontaneous, and ‘bottom up rather than top down’.

It’s nigh on impossible to create a ceremony that accommodates the uncontrollable, but we should show compassionate tolerance of venting individuals, whether they interrupt a service, or start a drunken scrap at the wake.

I don’t have personal experience of fighting but my best friend at school was a first-rate pugilist. His duels were organised affairs. Insults would be passed in the cloisters between lessons, and a time would then be agreed for he and his adversary to meet behind the pavilion, where a noisy crowd would gather for the ensuing thrill of black eyes and bloody noses. I held my friend’s jacket and cheered him on, praying he wouldn’t break a tooth.

I also recall leaving Westminster Cathedral after mass to be confronted by a large crowd of Muslims chanting that we must die. It was a legal, ‘free speech’ demo, kettled by our boys in blue, and triggered by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg speech in which he freely quoted a 13th century Byzantine Christian emperor in conversation with a Persian guest: the erudite Christian emperor politely argued with his educated Muslim friend that spreading the faith through violence was unreasonable, and therefore displeasing to God. The academic Holy Father’s allusion to this historical record was deemed apostasy by 21st century fundamentalists.

A brawl in the Cathedral piazza that morning might have been a craic, but only if weapons were banned, partakers were consenting and we all shook hands afterwards. But the peace-protecting police refused to take such a risk, rightly distrusting human nature to know where to draw the line.

One acceptable invitation to anarchic behaviour at civil funerals is rock music: aggressive dancing in the aisle with The Clash’s White Riot on the sound system, perhaps? In my last blog, I compared Terry Jacks’ drippy Seasons in the Sun, with a greatly energised cover version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Hearing it reminded me of sweaty air guitar sessions in my study at school (as well as the fights): The Ramones’ Teenage Lobotomy, anyone?

However, totally letting go through dance beyond the age of overactive hormones can be embarrassing. I’ll be sticking with Abide With Me and Ave Maria.


  1. Charles

    A lovely and emotionally honest young woman who lost her partner asked me if I knew of somewhere she could go to smash plates and hammer a punch bag. I’m thinking this could be incorporated into the undertaker’s services?

  2. Charles

    RR wrote: ‘One acceptable invitation to anarchic behaviour at civil funerals is rock music: aggressive dancing in the aisle with The Clash’s White Riot on the sound system, perhaps?’
    Maybe at the bash afterwards. People are so shy sitting in their rows all facing the front. But I completely agree that anger is an important element of bereavement – it’s often overlooked.

  3. Charles

    A few years ago the funeral before me at the crematorium caused uproar. A person got up ran to the coffin and started banging and shanking it – he then threatened to punch the funeral director and the police were called. The vicar led everyone out an concluded the service in the cloisters area (where the flowers are left).
    And my boss will always recall the gypsy funeral where after the service then men took off their jackets ahnded them to their wives and girlfriends and proceeded to have a maor brawl in the church lane.
    So much for a quiet life

  4. Charles

    Let’s not overlook the potent mix of Thanatos and Eros in Taiwanese funerals, where funeral strippers are a timeless ingredient of a good funeral.

    Translate that to a British context and substitute topless coffin bearers. That would go down very well for anyone who was The Man when he was alive, while a Chippendale equivalent for some women would be popular also. I am very surprised that no discerning funeral director offers this option.

    See funeral strippers here: https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2011/06/thanatos-meets-eros-on-an-electric-flower-car/

    I love that joyous gypsy brawl, Jenny. Get it all out, I say. Bloody marvellous.

  5. Charles

    Very interesting read and comments! There should definitely be an anger relief option at funerals or afterwards. A soundproof room where the bereaved can shout obscenities to the skies without upsetting others could be good. Love the gypsy story Tracey. There was an Irish Traveller funeral not too long ago and the FD told me that the brother of the dead man ended up stabbing himself with a stanley knife at the wake (he lived). Those emotions could have been channelled through something else rather than himself if there were options.

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