The presence of the dead is essential

Charles Cowling


The funeral of Mitul Shah

We bear mortality by bearing mortals — the living and the dead — to the brink of a uniquely changed reality: Heaven or Valhalla or Whatever Is Next. We commit and commend them into the nothingness or somethingness, into the presence of God or God’s absence. Whatever afterlife there is or isn’t, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going the distance with their dead — to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion we consign them to. And we’ve been doing this since the beginning. 

The formula for our funerals was fairly simple for most of our history: by getting the dead where they needed to go, the living got where they needed to be. 

Ours is the species that deals with death (the idea of the thing) by dealing with our dead (the physical fact of the thing itself). 

The presence of the dead is an essential, definitive element of a funeral. 

These four essential, definitive elements, then: the corpse, the caring survivors, some brokered change of status between them, and the disposition of the dead make a human funeral what it is. 

Stements extracted from an essay by Thomas Lynch here

If Mr Lynch is right, how much more essential and elemental to bring the dead to their funeral for all to see and mourn, as in the photo above of of Mitul Shah, killed by terrorists in the Westgate mall in Kenya. 



The cremation of Mitul Shah

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gloria mundi

The puzzle around “committal” at a crematorium ceremony, where the body goes into the flames unwitnessed, but family may later commit the ashes to the woods, the ocean or a cemetery, is a real one. I seem to have stopped using the word “committal” in the ceremony and on any leaflets; “words of farewell” seems better to me, if words are used.


I think that’s a good call, GM. Most people agree the decedent should be present at the funeral, and, for burial, most are present at the committal to the ground, too. For cremation, I don’t have a strong view about witnessing the incineration just as I don’t have a strong view about the coffin being open or closed at the funeral. It’s down to choice. However, I do think people need to be reminded that the committal is not the closing of the curtains or the cremation itself, but the delivering of the cremains to their final resting place, whether… Read more »

Hazel Pittwood

An interesting and thought provoking post Charles, as ever. Out of interest, do you agree with Mr Lynch regarding the four essential, definitive elements he suggests? An increasing number of people seem to not feel the need to be present at the point of committal. Predominantly I’ve noticed this with cremation services as opposed to burial, which I believe relates to the finality of the resting place and most families wanting to be involved with that (families can of course be given the ashes and hold their own ceremony at another time, whereas with burial the interment is the final… Read more »


It’s a moving image, this dead man – too soon to call him a dead body – covered in flowers, surrounded by living people here to witness his body minus his spirit and do the arithmetic, before watching the disposal with their own eyes instead of imagining him in his coffin and being presented later with the cremevidence.

Both the very evident presence and absence of the dead are essential, or what’s a funeral about?


It does indeed seem vitally important to have the decedent present at the funeral. The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it’s hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body. Images from this Sikh funeral for a young father, murdered by al-Qaeda-linked Islamist terrorist group Al-Shabaab, form a poignant reminder of this.