A eulogy sandwich is not enough to nourish grief

Charles 13 Comments

As Jenny Uzell embarks on a series of posts which will consider the knotty question, What Is A Funeral For? it’s worth reflecting on what has been a game of two halves, funeralwise, in the last fortnight. Two people have expressed contrasting approaches to a funeral.

First, there was Dave Smith, who arranged the funeral of his daughter, Hannah, the 14-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied online. Desperately sad though this was, Dave wanted the funeral to celebrate Hannah’s life, and he asked mourners and relatives to wear colourful clothes, onesies, her favourite garment, in particular,  to reflect Hannah’s joie de vivre.

The church was decorated with purple and white balloons, photographs of Hannah, and a poster that read “Be Happy for Hannah”. Purple was Hannah’s favourite colour. Her coffin was purple. Her father did not want her to travel in a hearse, so he brought her himself in a blue Audi 4×4. The coffin was carried into church to In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. The service was conducted by the Church of England vicar, the Rev Charlie Styles, who described the proceedings as informal and relaxed. Four hundred people came.

Hannah’s was a very zeitgeisty funeral, highly personal, focussed on positives. There were tears, yes, and there was also laughter.

At the other end of the scale, over in Ireland, the bishop of Meath, Dr Michael Smith, courted howling and outrage when he restated the Catholic church’s doctrinal ban on the personalisation of funerals. He outlawed eulogies. This embargo seems to be restated in a newsworthy way in a more or less five-yearly cycle. Since compromise is impossible, it is one that looks set to keep on coming round.

The good bishop’s rationale for resisting what he calls the dumbing down of funerals accords with Catholic dogma. In his words:

“The context of the funeral Mass in the church should be focused entirely on the celebration of the Eucharist. What we’re trying to do is focus on the essence of the Christian funeral rite. The essence is, of course, two things. One is to support the family, through prayer and the community, but also the other function of it is that we support the person on their journey to salvation. What we are trying to do then is maintain the integrity of the Eucharist.”

Can’t argue with that, can you? If you want to belong to the club, them’s the rules.

Both Dave Smith and the Bishop of Meath have very clear ideas about what they think a funeral should aim to accomplish, and how it should achieve it.

But the good bishop has other things to say about funerals that may be relevant to all of us. He says:

“I suppose that people’s understanding when they hear about a funeral is that they focus entirely on the funeral Mass but the rites of Christian funerals begin long before that. You have the vigil for the deceased, the wake house and the removal and, of course, the prayers of commendation at the graveside. So we’re saying look, there are opportunities for family members who want to pay a personal tribute to the deceased.”

He’s got a point, hasn’t he? Why do we feel that farewelling and remembrancing have to be packed into brief, bulging crem slot, leaving so much to be said in short order that, in order to get the biography recited and the grandchildren named, a celebrant must, with one eye fixed on the clock,  zoom through a script at 360 words per minute, ruthlessly fading the music for prayer and/or reflection on the way?

Why do we place so much of a burden on the single event of the funeral ceremony? After all, there’s the time before it, as the bishop says. And there’s time afterwards — oh god, all that time afterwards.

That’s the time we need to focus on.

Secularists are neglecting to develop a case for the introduction of practices and rituals either side of the ceremony which might promote both good remembrancing and, also, the emotional health of bereaved people. This is probably why no celebrant association has made a public statement in support of the e-petition calling for statutory bereavement leave. That they haven’t is nothing short of astounding.

The Jewish practice of sitting shiva is a brilliant example of the sort of practice I’m talking about. For seven days following the funeral, the close family take a complete time out — stop the world, I want to get off: “The mourners experience a week of intense grief, and the community is there to love and comfort and provide for their needs.” Find more here.

Jews mourn in a structured way for a year. Shiva is followed by three weeks of schloshim, a less intense mourning period, followed by further regulated re-entry into the world. 

Like all rituals rooted in belief systems that have developed over hundreds of years, Jewish mourning is characterised by a thicket of impedimental ordinances, many of which strike outsiders as completely bonkers or, where gender equality is concerned, utterly unacceptable. For all that, the degree of difficulty they present is at the heart of the solace they offer. My friend Graham is presently saying the mourning kaddish daily for his father. It’s a short enough prayer. Translated, it reads:

Magnified and sanctified be God’s great name in the world which He created according to His will. May he establish His kingdom during our lifetime and during the lifetime of Israel. Let us say, Amen.

May God’s great name be blessed forever and ever.

Blessed, glorified, honored and extolled, adored and acclaimed be the name of the Holy One, though God is beyond all praises and songs of adoration which can be uttered. Let us say, Amen.

May there be peace and life for all of us and for all Israel. Let us say, Amen.

Let He who makes peace in the heavens, grant peace to all of us and to all Israel. Let us say, Amen.

Graham could mutter this while he waits for his kettle to boil or just think it as he brushes his teeth. But he’s not allowed to do that. No, he’s got to leg it down to the synagogue and recite it every day without fail at teatime in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten adult males. As a result, it rules his day. Everything is built around it. If he’s away on business he has to contact a synagogue before he’s even booked his flight in order to assure himself that there’ll be a minyan ready and waiting for him. Graham’s a man who has not been as observant as he might have been, in the past, but he’s doing his bit for his Dad, whom he loved. It’s hard work, he says, and it’s doing him a surprising amount of good.

Unglamorous work, isn’t it? Saying kaddish doesn’t fit with all those culturally untranslatable fun customs Brits get so bedazzled by, like the Dia de los Muertos (nobbut a lot of facepainting and larking about over here). Kaddish reminds us that mourning is a matter of hard yards.

The eulogy sandwich served up by celebrants is all very well in its way, but it’s not enough to nourish grief.


POSTSCRIPT: Jews are pro-eulogy. Here’s the halakhic ordinance:
Delivering a proper eulogy (hesped) is a major mitzvah. The mitzvah is to raise one’s voice and to speak heartrending words about the deceased in order to arouse the weeping of the audience, and to mention his praises … If one is negligent about the eulogy of an upright Jew one does not live long and is worthy of being buried alive.

It is forbidden to exaggerate excessively in praising the deceased. However, one is permitted to exaggerate slightly, as long as one does not go too far. If the deceased had no good qualities, one should not mention his character … If one attributes good qualities to someone who did not possess them at all, or excessively exaggerates the good qualities he had, this causes evil to the speaker and to the deceased.


  1. Charles

    You cover a lot of ground in this fascinating post Charles, so of course you need to simplify and abbreviate, but – not all celebrant-led funerals are eulogy sandwiches, not all celebrants have to gabble through in order to fit everything in, not all celebrant-led funerals are conventional crem slots. Too many are, I feel, but thank goodness, a substantial minority, perhaps a growing minority, who knows – are not.

    I think perhaps the most valuable point in this is that we overload the funeral and need to do more structured things before and after the funeral, if we are to help people grieve. Is this necessarily the role of a celebrant, I wonder?

  2. Charles

    Quite right about the black and white, GM. Anything over 700 words is more than a blog can conventionally stand, so I guess its role is to start something — and I’m pleased to have piqued a response from you, especially.

    Agreed, all celebrants aren’t the same. When I heard my first clock-stopper (Leslie Scrace in Dorset), I felt I’d learned the most important lesson of all.

    In any case, celebrants aren’t to blame if the cultural expectation is that the ceremony is all you need; after that you’re on your own – with the fallback option of Cruse.

    Perhaps the nub of the problem is that there is no ministry to the secular bereaved, nor are there social customs in place to see them all the way through, not even the acknowledgement that bereavement is big enough to require time off work.

    So the problem, if there is one, is more than we can do anything about. But I feel it’s something the more thinking celebrants ought to talk about and try to get others to talk about, too. We can do better than make the best of things as they are.

  3. Charles

    Charles, I think you make a good point about short funeral ceremonies struggling to accommodate various elements: eulogy, music, readings etc. I’m sure there are advantages of double crem slots, of finding alternative venues without the in/out time pressures, and of sharing the burden on ceremonies with elements before and after.
    But if the chosen emphasis of a funeral is to celebrate a life, then the eulogy is likely to remain its cornerstone. If something had to go for reasons of time constraints, wouldn’t it be the last on the list for many?
    As for the very different Catholic approach, I don’t quite understand why Catholics would also want the secular way of pre-eminent eulogies. Those who do might be cultural Catholics but they seem out of touch with spiritual Catholicism. The requiem mass reveals the Christian meaning of death, it reminds mourners to prepare for their own deaths and urges them to pray for the soul of the deceased person. That’s what it’s for.
    In this context, eulogies during the mass can indeed be a distraction from the liturgy. This is especially so when eulogies are unreservedly positive and insist the deceased person is already in heaven. This contradicts the belief that even the just need prayers of intercession.
    In fact, saints are the first to be acutely aware of their sins, of how they depend on God’s mercy. Hope is not the same as presumption

    1. Charles

      I thought a catholic was one whose intention is to dedicate his entire being to God all his life, and subjugate his identity into the creator’s. Surely a funeral that so much as mentions his name fails to acknowledge who he truly is?

      1. Charles

        Ah well Jonathan I was told by a wayward lady catholic bishop ( they don’t get more wayward than that) that the reason your name is not mentioned in a catholic funeral is because it doesn’t need to be – in death we are all equal – brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s the only thing that matters. Who you were or who others thought you were is totally irrelevant in that grand scheme of things.

        (And yes it’s all tipsy topsy turvy here now)

  4. Charles

    I’m all for eulogies, Richard. They describe the completeness of the life lived and assert all that has not been lost. Yes, the secular funeral is a different sort of funeral from a requiem mass; the eulogy in a secular funeral is absolutely the heart of the thing. It’s not just the crem time constraints I’d take issue with, though, it’s also the extraneous stuff that people like to have bundled into a funeral and which can be distracting. The chronology of the life can be a distraction from the focus on what made the person tick. The art of the celebrant lies in capturing the essence of a person. When that person got married or moved to Lutterworth can get in the way.

    A funeral cannot carry all that needs to be done.

  5. Charles

    Yes Charles, I think celebrants could usefully explore the before and the after a funeral, and talk to others about it. Your community cooperative model already exists, as a potential way of supporting the bereaved.

    Not all celebrants could or would want to function as ritualists outside the confines of a crem, but those who could might have a role in helping people discover better modes of grieving.

    I’m thinking we have to discover meaningful and satisfying symbolic actions to help people grieve who cannot turn to a priest. I don’t mean that I think I’m a priest, just that there may be a large unanswered need for more than counselling (no dis to Cruse, whose resources anyway are limited.)

    But here we go again trying to “invent” ritual for a secularised section of the community. Blimey, it’s difficult enough in a 45 minute funeral.

    So, two things: a structured community network to support whatever friends do (or don’t do), and a lead in organising routines and rituals, symbolic actions, to help people grieve, if they need/want help.

    Might take a while….but we are all troubled by “making the best of things as they are,” I think.

  6. Charles

    Quite so, GM: routines, rituals and symbolic actions. Up-and-doing grief therapy. The re-integration of bereaved people into everyday life, not just waiting more or less impatiently for them to get over it in some degree of social isolation. Nothing prescriptive, of course; only belief systems can be prescriptive. It is disappointing, I think, that the celebrancy orgs focus on the one-off of the funeral ceremony and have offered no thought-leadership concerning the time before and the time afterwards.

    1. Charles

      The time before the funeral can be the most productive for a celebrant, given the chance to be with the dead person’s family.

      If only the funeral directors would step out of their way, and actually encourage a culture in which it is the celebrant who is found first and who helps the family find the undertaker most helpful to their (yet to be discovered) needs, instead of the funeral director phoning down her list of celebrants until she finds one who happens to be available next Thursday, regardless of his suitability to this family.

      Discussion, rumination, research, more discussion, walks round the garden, shouting and screaming into the night, time for inspiration, poetry, music, food, more time and more time, loss-orientation, adjustment orientation and their incorporation into the ceremony – these are the things that give rise to creative grieving ritual intuitively designed to help, not a catalogue of goods and a crem timeslot availability-ometer.

      The traditional undertaker business model actively discourages effective grieving ritual; the involvement of a eulogy, or otherwise, is a side-issue. It is the celebrant who is the funeral director.

      1. Charles

        … and is it just my laptop, or has the comments section turned upside-down? Most confusing, and a lot of scrolling up and back to read it.

  7. Charles

    An interesting post as ever Charles. The point of families having to concentrate farewell and remembrance in this short, one off period/occasion is, as you suggest, entirely avoidable in terms of the provision of support prior to death occurring and the subsequent lifetime of the bereaved afterwards.
    I too have taken great interest in the practices of the Jewish faith following bereavement.

    Jonathan, your response felt a little ‘tar everyone with the same brush’ – as there are undoubtedly celebrants who would welcome and indeed perhaps already practice the approach of care and support of families prior to and after bereavement and the funeral, there are funeral directors who work with this approach too I assure you. Conversely of course there will be those who don’t and have no interest in doing anything more than the bare minimum to help families at their time of need.

    Funeral directors, if not limiting their compassion, care, knowledge and support just to people who have already been bereaved and only working in the capacity of organising funeral services, can (if they want to give their time to do so) become a source of great support for families. Families contact us for all manner of things before death occurs and it is at that point the support should begin. If a relative is nearing the end of life no funeral director in that position should resort to a ‘call us when death occurs’ response unless the family express they do not want that support (and of course not everyone will, there’s no one size fits all). Most families with a loved one facing death (and people facing death themselves) have questions and concerns that they would like answers for but perhaps aren’t given the permission to ask them in a safe environment with someone with the knowledge to answer them. Likewise with care afterwards – the ‘what happens now/next?’ questions. People need to be empowered and supported.

    Likewise I can assure you we don’t all phone down a list of celebrants until finding one who is available, regardless of their suitability for a family. We have a close working and mutually understanding role with celebrants – we are together, not separate services. Everything is connected. Funeral directors willing to give themselves and their time to families, who care about providing a service with integrity, honesty and genuine desire to help people at their time of need as their motivation for being in this profession are in a position to provide a long reaching and widespread support system to the bereaved.

  8. Charles

    Sorry for my late post. I am the new boy here. A lot of what everyone says makes sense. I find it very rewarding meeting with a family a week before the service. More and more ( especially where an older person has died) I find that I go into a quiet household. I start to ask questions about Mum/Dad/ Aunt/ Grandad and the stories start. And the smiles break out. In a few cases it’s like they feel the need for permission to talk about their late relative. I’m not saying that we fulfil the role of grief facilitator, just that as I grow into the role I find that this is becoming a satisfying part of my role. And I get more information. I am extremely aware of time constraints in the crematorium and always point them out to families. It is a start for many of the process of getting back into their lives. In my time as a police officer dealing with victims of serious sexual assault, I was in very similar position. We are in a privileged position here. What we do and say May set the tone for the family. But can we honestly do more after the ceremony ? Not sure that’s my place.

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