In the borderlands

Charles 22 Comments

 Untitled #20 (2003-3)

Photograph by Bill Henson


Posted by Jenny Uzzell

There is a very useful word frequently used by anthropologists and students of religion and mythology to describe something that is neither one thing nor the other; something that is ‘in between’. The word is ‘liminal’.

Classic examples of things that are ‘liminal’ are marshes or other places at the water’s edge, crossroads, twilight and, interestingly, people who are in any way trans-gender. Liminal things are very powerful and very dangerous. They create ‘thin’ places where the ‘Otherworld’ can bleed into this. This is, unless your shaman has deliberately created the situation and is very much ‘In Control’, generally considered to be a Bad Thing. 

Dead bodies are most definitely ‘liminal’. A dead body hanging around in the community belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. It is, both practically and ‘magically’ a very dangerous thing. It both is and is not your husband, mother, son, friend… Dead bodies, by their mere presence blur the boundaries between life and death and this is definitely a Bad Thing… things can become confused. Things can cross over. On a purely practical level there is disintegration and a very real risk of disease as time goes on. 

It is little wonder then that our ancestors sought to neutralise the risk of a dead body by rendering it, practically and ritually, into something that is stable and does not present a threat to the living. Before burial the body was treated with great care. In some cultures the body could not be left unattended between death and burial. Sometimes all mirrors in the house were covered. The shoes of the dead person removed. Doors opened. Always the purpose is to ensure that the dead remain dead, the living remain living and nothing leaves its appointed place. We saw a good example of this in the Vedic funeral mentioned last time in which Death is ritually restricted to the burial mound and a boundary drawn which it cannot cross. 

Whilst this may be very interesting to an archaeologist or an anthropologist, you could be forgiven for asking what it has to do with modern funerals. The answer, as it happens, is ‘quite a lot’. One of the major purposes of a funeral, ancient or modern, is to move the person who has died from ‘here’ to ‘there’. The body itself is removed from the community through burial, cremation, mummification or some other means. The ‘person’ is removed from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. What this means will depend on the beliefs of the community which is carrying out the ritual. Where there is a clear belief in life after death in some form then the purpose is clear and I talked about this at length in the previous two articles here and here. Where there is a hope rather than a belief, then this will be expressed and affirmed by the community. Even where there is no hope at all of an afterlife, and the understanding is that the dead person has truly ceased to exist, there will still be a transition from the living person who was a part of the fabric of society and of the community to one who lives in the memory and imagination of those left behind and who will be different to each person who remembers.

This is one reason why for many people, myself included, it is so vital to have the body present at the funeral. The community gathers together to acknowledge and bear witness to the appalling fact of death in general and this death in particular. They stand with the body, accompanying it as far as the living are able on its journey from ‘this’ to ‘that; from; ‘here’ to ‘there’ and then they acknowledge not only that someone has gone from their midst, but also that they are still alive and can start the long and painful task of re-constructing the community without the missing member. 

Many people feel that the real journey of grief and healing cannot begin until after the funeral because it not until then that the person is really ‘gone’. 

It is in the case of secular, materialist funerals in particular that there is, perhaps, a need for new rituals and new ‘liturgy’ that effects and bears witness to this transition from one state of being to another. We do not do badly with the words, but the ritual, the ‘acting out’ of this transformation is still not fully recognised and acknowledged in many non-religious funerals and I suspect that over the next hundred years or so this will change. Humans are ritual animals, and where no ritual or tradition exists that fully expresses what we need to say or need to feel we will continue to use the old ones, even if they are irrelevant, for a very long time. Eventually, however, we will create new ones that reflect our own reality. 

Of course, the process of moving through and out of the liminal state does not entirely end with the funeral. Memories are still fresh and immediate; sometimes it is difficult to accept, even to remember that the person has gone. For this reason many religions and cultures have a second ritual about a year after the death that effectively moves the dead person into an ‘ancestral realm’. Regardless of whether this is seen as an actual thing which happens to the ‘soul’ or not, this is, I think, a healthy thing which could, usefully, be incorporated into modern funeral tradition. 

One modern development is likely to have a far reaching impact on this whole idea of the realms of life and death which as yet we cannot even begin to grasp. Online ‘personas’ on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, to say nothing of virtual worlds such as Second Life, may continue beyond physical death so that the ‘person’ remains in the virtual community in some form or other. This is an eventuality for which our ancestors could not prepare us, and it remains to be seen what its impact on the way we approach death will be in the coming centuries.



  1. Charles

    Hi Jenny, I agree with Fran, so beautifully written and some great new insights.
    As you say there is a lot written by bereavement theorists, anthropologists, death sociologists and other death academics there is a missing link of reflections of this liminal space and connecting it to funerals and in particular the time between death and the funeral. I think of it as the ‘liminal space’ for creating religious and none religious rituals around the funeral planning. One of my favourite books which explores this liminal space is Allan Kellehear’s ‘A Social History of Dying’ Cambridge University Press.

    Jenny, is there a way of naming this ‘liminal space’ between death and the funeral and so by reclaiming it create a paradigm shift of emphasis of what funerals are for ?

  2. Charles

    Perhaps it is important after all that our funeral directors, bearers, priests and officiants should stand apart from the mourners in ‘special’ clothes, giving them the status and power needed for their role.
    A lot to think about – thank you Jenny.

  3. Charles

    Thank you all so much for the lovely comments! Thanks, also, Susan for the book recommendation. I will immediately purchase a copy!

    I don’t know about the ‘naming’ of the liminal space, I wouldn’t know where to start with that one. The problem with labels is that they tend to exclude one group or another, albeit unintentionally. I do think that its important to claim that time and use it, relating it, as you say, to the purpose and impact of the funeral. I don’t know how to go about it though, other than one family, one newspaper article, one talk at a time.

    Keith and I were present to be questioned last night at a meeting of a lovely church group where a lady who arranged her funeral with us about 2 years ago (not a pre paid plan, just discussing and recording what she would like) was talking about her journey. It was an amazing experience. There were 6 people there but a lot of sharing and discussion. I have a feeling that it is events like this and like people attending more meaningful funerals which will move things forward.

    What do others here think?


  4. Charles

    Very thought-provoking piece Jennifer. It set me wondering how much of this stuff remains in the collective unconscious. I have to confess to an Anglo-Saxon temperament that heeds not spiritworlds, will-o’-the-wisps, troubled souls, wraiths, phantasms or anything of the sort where dead people are concerned. But I do very much sign up to the Jonathan Taylor doctrine that the time between death and either the earth or the fire is a time spent getting one’s head around the difference between him/her and it. It’s certainly liminal. I suspect my rationalist viewpoint may be, both, dullwitted and unrepresentative.

    The reason why the corpse is carried from a house feet-first is the prevent the spirit from scarpering back inside – that’s right, isn’t it? If so, I wonder how many undertakers know that.

    1. Charles

      Oh, meant to add, a big yes to your last point. It’s got to be bottom up all the way from now on. Top down will never work.

      PS I tried to read Mr Kellahear’s book and found it terribly dull. This is because it went over my head. It won’t go over yours.

    2. Charles

      I don’t think that your attitude is unusual at all, Charles. I think I was trying to explain the concept of liminality in terms of its origins. A total lack of belief in life after death and things that go bump in the mortuary does not alter the fact that both the body, and the period of time in between death and burial (or whatever) is liminal. It is during the time that friends and relatives are often spending time with the body and, crucially (and I know Ru has written extensively about this) the time during which their relationship with the body begins to change to the extent that they are ready to let it go. This is perhaps one of the most important roles of this period in a secular context. It is also a time during which the person begins to take a new shape in memory and imagination. I think I won’t say anything more about that at the moment as its a big topic in its own right!

      The body being carried out feet first is in the same tradition as removing the shoes, taking a circuitous route so the dead person cannot find the way back, crossing running water and a number of other ‘superstitions’ designed to keep the dead and therefore death at a safe distance from the surviving community. It is in this mind set that the vampire mythology was born, probably several thousand years ago.

      Related but different is the belief, current in a number of cultures, that the soul hovers around the body for a period of time (typically three days) after death and that during this time it can benefit from comfort, oblation and instructions offered by the living. In Tibetan Buddhism this is called the ‘bardo state’ and monks constantly chant to the body giving reassurance and guidance on how to negotiate the bardo. I have to say, rational belief aside, there is a pert of me that really likes that idea!

  5. Charles

    Hi Jenny, thanks for this meaty read. Re your comment on my last post, in contrasting ways (lighthearted and philosophical in this instance) we’re both dwelling on the differences between religious and secular funerals, how the afterlife is approached in the former, and how lives are celebrated in the latter. I’d be interested to hear any conclusions you reach on the way forward for funerals devoid of belief in the afterlife. Keep sharing your thoughts!

    You touch on the limbo period between death and committal; the practical role of the funeral to end this limbo period; the importance of having the body present at its send-off; and the different significance of the funeral depending on belief in the afterlife or not.

    On the latter point, it’s worth dwelling on just how radically different the two mental approaches are, even if the physical approaches still share rituals in common—whether secularists aping religious traditions or vice versa.

    A couple of thoughts on this union of such unhappy bedfellows. Both true faith and true nihilism are extremely difficult for any mortal, not least for the nihilists as belief in nothing is something of an oxymoron. Ancient philosophy began with wonder, but much contemporary philosophy stops at wonder. We’re told, don’t wonder about what you cannot know for sure, when in fact wisdom doesn’t eliminate doubt but comprehends it.

    Many secular thinkers embrace the idea that there’s nothing after physical death. Most recognise the ultimate simplicity of nihilism, yet faced with nihilistic thoughts refuses to resist the human urge to literally make something out of nothing. Human nature instinctively fights against any suggestion that absolutely nothing may be in our future.

    It’s Friday evening and this comment is making me late for a date!

    1. Charles

      Hi, Ricahrd.

      I suspect that complete commitment to a particular set of dogma and complete reductionism materialism (faith and atheism to use common short hand) are very much the exception to the rule in the UK. That is certainly my experience with the families we serve.

      We do, very occasionally, arrange for a totally atheistic funeral where there is no idea of a life after death. These are almost a case apart and probably worthy of a separate article to themselves, but they are also very uncommon.

      Most ‘secular’ funerals do not lack an element of the spiritual and they contain a hope rather than a certainty of an afterlife. What they tend to lack is a clear or common understanding of what that afterlife might be. Atheistic and ‘Agnostic’ (again, a crude short hand for which I apologise) funerals are two very different things which will, I think, eventually develop different ritual as they do, at their core, have different understandings of the nature and purpose of human life.

      1. Charles

        Hi Jenny, you say: ‘We do, very occasionally, arrange for a totally atheistic funeral where there is no idea of a life after death. These are almost a case apart and probably worthy of a separate article to themselves’.

        I agree this subject is worth separate discussion. I think it might lead to more clarity about what a secular funeral is for. A Catholic funeral isn’t about celebrating a life but is about praying for the repose of an immortal soul. That’s good for me but Dies Ire is clearly not for others.

        An atheist funeral is about celebrating a life but doesn’t seem to be about honestly facing up to the reality of personal extinction. It simply doesn’t mention God.

        Serving the many in between these ‘extremes’ seems to involve celebrating a life and alluding to some form of life beyond death. And that life beyond death seems always to describe the happiest scenario of the person being celebrated. It effectively assumes the person was elevated to sainthood regardless of the reality.

        Is peace of mind all what people want from a secular funeral, a eulogy cherry-picking the best of a person, along with a sentimental nod to them now being in a better place?

        Do the grieving believe what’s said, or do they just think it’s the most decorous, respectful way to neatly tie up loose ends? Is there a fear that confronting death, whether the Catholic or atheist version, is too challenging, too unkind or upsetting, and therefore defeating the object of the funeral to heal?

        But does the status quo aid closure if it’s transparetnly paying lip service to a quasi-religious belief? What I’m asking is should funerals more clearly define the meaing of nothingness, or of an afterlife other than perfect peace with the angels? Anyone who truly believed in the latter would surely be very wary of presuming it as a right.

  6. Charles

    Fascinating and important Jenny. Secular funerals, when well done, can be moving, loving, even transcendent – but they are usually very specific to the person and the particular circumstances of the death. What they lack is any overarching context to give meaning to the ceremony. It’s the one question that we return to time and again in this blog – why do we have funerals?
    I think you’ve scented out the start of a trail here – liminality, transition, the effect on a community of a death all give context to the funeral. More importantly they are steps toward a shared view of funerals – and once you have a shared view you have the basis for that secular ritual you envisage – something we can all join in with that is widely owned as well as particular.

    1. Charles

      Vale, I agree entirely. The honouring of a particular life is and should be central to a ‘secular’ funeral but the emphasis on the individual does, I think, erode the community aspect of the funeral. (I think the same thing can often be true of civil marriages.) A ‘big picture’ enclosing the individual would be powerful and useful I think.

      Hmm, this is going to need more than 20 minutes isn’t it 🙂

  7. Charles

    Jenny, I think your mention of social media beyond the grave is lost in the last paragraph of a post offering so much else to think about: merits a post all of its own!

    We remember the dead in so many ways: recollections of shared experiences, reading their written legacy, hearing their favourite song, seeing their favourite chair, smelling the scent they used, watching their Youtube vlogs perhaps.

    I don’t know what to make of receiving their scheduled tweets and facebook messages, activated by their executor after they’ve died. How would we feel to get a ‘happy birthday, darling’ message from a long-gone mother? Or an ‘on this day five years ago we were holidaying in Ko Samui’ from a recently deceased friend?

    1. Charles

      Hi, Richard.

      You are right, there is a whole different issue around this and one which, I confess, I don’t know much about, although I know Charles has raised it on the blog before. I included it here because it occurred to me that things like this would impede the transition of the person who has dies and those that love him through that liminal period. I have to say I have serious concerns about this, I suspect it would not be useful in terms of a journey of bereavement. Having said that…I’m getting old. Many other things have changed and adapted over even the last 5 years to accommodate new technologies, maybe bereavement will be one of them.

      One thing I am fairly certain of is that social media is still in its infancy. It would be fascinating to know where we will be with all this in the next 50-100 years!

  8. Charles

    I have to confess to a rather doltish wariness of the l-word. Once you detect liminality in one area you see it everywhere, from a queue at a bus stop to the contents of the laundry basket. Everything everywhere is in a liminal state, so there ain’t nothing special about it. Am I being especially thick? One should never wash one’s dirty linen in public.

    In cultures where there is a belief that the dead person must be assisted in their transition to the Other Side, there is much for mourners to do as agents and interceders. There are lots of people in the UK who believe this, as members of Transitus, for example, will testify. Where that belief is denied or not subscribed to, the focus shifts from what is happening to the dead person to what is happening to Me — I need to be helped in my transition from a relationship with a living person to an enduring, healthy relationship with one who is dead. So most of us bring our dead people to funerals not for their sake but for ours.

    The period leading up to a funeral is a useful to begin that transition, and a funeral useful as a ritual marker. But is a funeral enough in itself? Almost certainly not. Which is why, as you say, Jenny, there is probably a need for follow-up rituals, and even for graded, transitional states of declining intensity with observances and duties attached, all designed to promote emotional health. Jews are good at this, and are required to work hard – the more so, perhaps, because they bury as fast as they can. There is aninut, the period of intense grief before the burial, followed by three stages of avelut – shiva (7 days), shloshim (a month) and shneim asar chodesh (to the year’s end).

    A good and useful parallel with shiva would be statutory bereavement leave, a much-needed secular recognition of a universal emotional necessity.

    As you say, the year’s end, or year’s mind, is common to many cultures, as is the month’s mind.

    Minding days. Let’s have em back!

    1. Charles

      Students of history will know Charles that it’s daft to talk of “a time of transition,” every period is transitional, so maybe liminality is very common – but it’s the vulnerability and uncertainty of this in-between, liminal state which might mark it off from other kinds of transitional state?

  9. Charles

    Much here to think about and enjoy, much that relates so directly to celebrancy work – thank you very much Jenny.

    The distinction between atheist (rare) and agnostic, possibilist contexts (frequent) is one I find all the time in families I visit. The latter context often gives rise to observations about “spiritual” rather than “religious” matters – we grope forward with this, I feel, and it’s much more than anxiety about definitions.

    I’m not sure that the emphasis on one life in a secular funeral is quite as isolating as some think, for two reasons.

    Firstly, I find a recurrent pattern in some of the introductory, farewell and concluding words that I speak or get spoken by others, and that is usually around concepts of the meaning of a life that stays with us, the bit of us that comes from someone we’ve loved, the whole “rippling” idea. That seems to be a widely-shared impulse. It’s something agnostics want from a secular funeral.

    Secondly, people will come up to me (any of us, I’m sure) after a funeral and say that the person who’s died was “just like that , I remember once when…” or “would have recognised himself, would have loved that, would have approved…” That feeling, that need for recognition of what has been lost and what is still held close, is a big sharing impulse for that congregation. OK, that’s just one person and one gathering, but it is surely emerging as a common – expected – response to a good secular funeral. Maybe a shared element with at least some ritual effect is emerging here whilst we “professionals” worry on about the need for more rituals!

    I think the concept of liminality between death and funeral, and for a while afterwards, is powerful, even for those of us who don’t believe there is “anything there.” It helps me think more about that period, that transition – we often refer to transition in a funeral ceremony, but in half an hour we can only point the way.

    I really value the idea of ceremony/ritual at intervals before and after a funeral, to help the bereaved through the transition, as Charles says, from a body being “him” to “it.”

    And here’s another element which may be emerging with some degree of commonality – after a good (i.e. productive) family visit, a family member will often say they enjoyed talking about Dad, it was cathartic, it helped. So: part of the transition? Some assistance with the liminal state?

    Lastly- the GFG commentariat often attack the life story, the biographical eulogy, the eulogy sandwich. Perhaps it depends how it’s done. “He moved from the Bromley branch of Global Motors to the Croydon branch in June of 1963.” Ho hum. “When he moved from one branch to another, he was so much missed that the Bromley people insisted on holding a party for him on the anniversary of his departure – though he was so cheeky after a few drinks that his ex-boss emptied a soda siphon over him.” (“Yes,” think some people there, “that’s just the sort of bloke he was.”)

    OK, it’s a feeble, made-up example, but what might seem banal to an experienced “ritualist” might be a resonant moment for those present.

    I think, perhaps because so many of us are neither “religious” in the full sense, nor atheists (i.e. we are like many of our clients) that we miss how much of what we do has a ceremonial commonality. WE want deep ritual, we keep saying that our ceremonies are emotionally and psychically inadequate because they are not ritualistic at a deeper, common level, the agnostic tribe needs more ritual, it will take decades to emerge, etc.

    Isn’t it emerging already?
    Do our clients share our worries?

    1. Charles

      Meaty, GM. Wholly agree with you about the value of the meeting. As to worrying too much… well, let it never be said that the secular’ funeral is resting on its laurels over at the GFG!

      As for liminality, thank you for that; I feel reassured. I worry about post-modern, too. Where will it all end? But, yes, there’s something very other about the liminal state of freshly-bereaved people – and this brings us back to Susan saying there ought to be a word for it. I didn’t know what she meant when I read it, but I do now.

  10. Charles

    Jenny – THANK YOU – this is wonderful stuff. Many of my thoughts have been voiced by the others already. The ‘liminal space’ between death and funeral – the place where you are not what you once were but are not yet what you will be… I was pondering that as I read the comments – it seems there are three viewpoints – one is the liminality of the corpse stage one, life to death, one is stage two death to ????? and one is the liminality of the still living and how they deal ( or don’t deal) with the corpse as they grasp the reality of death. Maybe there’s four as they then have to get to the ‘after funeral’ stage?

    Most people want the corpse to be ‘looked after’ as in Messrs Doom and Gloom have ‘taken Mum into their care.’ That takes any responsibility for managing the corpse transition away in a private ambulance. But they are still left in the liminal state… which they now fill up with ‘arrangements’ and ‘paperwork’ and whatever else families do to prepare for ‘the funeral’. Then the funeral of whatever sort happens and THAT is without doubt (?) the point of transition for the corpse to leave and the family to begin to accept that. I often talk about the funeral allowing people to step over a line – though threshold is the liminal term. Is the funeral for the corpse though? (We could argue till kingdom come over that…. )

    I like Kitty’s thoughts about the FD fulfilling some sort of ‘high priest’ (or am I thinking ‘unclean’? ) role in separate garb and slightly ‘apart’ from the rest. That’s quite a tribal concept isn’t it? The ones who deal with the dead before they are removed from the community fall into their own eternal unclean liminal gap.

    Facebook interests me a great deal – I often look at FB accounts when arranging a funeral – to get a bit of an insight into the public virtual persona of someone. FB RIP in memory pages are also a fascinating topic for some bright young thing’s future PhD. They provide a portal, a place to speak to the dead that no-one thinks is in any way weird at all – in fact it provides a very safe place to mention the dead, a place where others will join you and comment in support. A place you can go to without a priest or parent or medium or even without leaving your house. Surely that’s about the survivor’s continuing liminality…. or is it?

    I’m not sure the faith aspect much matters in the practical live to dead liminal state? And do we mix up priestly mutterings with ‘ritual’ ? In other cultures they ‘do’ rituals to/with/around their dead. I’m not sure what everyone wants these ‘rituals’ to actually be? Given the separation of the corpse from the family, and the funeral, by taking it away and locking/hiding it in a box then allowing you 30 minutes to do the funeral – the funeral has become all a bit ‘virtual’ already, wouldn’t you say?

    I see a massive surge in the rise of creating shrines at gravesides at our local cemetery – so perhaps people are laying claim to the dead spaces and incorporating their dead into their worlds, or vice versa, by individual rituals at the graveside post funeral? Maybe that’s where they feel they have time and space to love and let go… or love and not let go.

    I’m just back from Greece where I learned that they bury quickly in an above ground tomb – perhaps the next day, then have the ‘funeral’ nine days later, then another ceremony 40 days later, then at one year and then a further ceremony perhaps after two or three years where the dry bones are removed from the tomb and transferred to their final resting place. It’s a real community thing and people come to all these services held in the Greek Orthodox Church and which are followed by a gathering in a local cafe perhaps. My Greek friend thinks this is a good way to go about dealing with death – it allows people to grieve openly and in community. It’s ok to grieve. He was dismayed that a friend who had lost her son was given medication. He saw that as delaying the inevitable but perhaps more importantly – it effectively removed the mother from the support group and the transitional shared experience of grieving with and within her community.

    Rituals evolve and develop naturally in community – they cannot be imposed. I feel that current UK funeral rites are somewhat constricting and that families are beginning to resist and seek their own understandings – that death will return to a more natural place, a more comfortable settling, as we accept its inevitability and stop seeing it as a shameful failure of medicine or fate.

  11. Charles

    A great thinking piece Jenny. Thank you.

    That liminal space question – the space between death and removing the evidence of a life is a very difficult transition. Often the funeral is too soon for the first faltering acceptance to have reached and hit the reality button. Alternatively, the cultures who remove the human evidence of the dead one within a very short period of time seem to cope extremely well. It’s surely all about acceptance and gaining comfort from what is the norm for your culture and there’s the rub. I heard a phrase the other day from a mourner – ‘we are all flapping about like fish on the quayside, gasping for air, not knowing what to feel, when to feel it and what it should feel like.’ This is particularly a secular problem – those aligned to a religion know and expect there will be good words of guidance and ritual for every stage of the process. There’ll be a good passage in the Bible to cover whatever it is they are going through.

    It is true, the 20 minute slot is woefully inadequate for the secular funeral to have useful content in addition to the fundamental base line of telling the dead one’s life story. I hate the term celebration of life, It sounds like a party – of denial.

    There are some woefully inadequate people performing these sort of ceremonies too ……but conversely, there are some marvellous, wise people who take the opportunity to address the issues of death, of that liminal state, of what you are really at the funeral for and where you go emotionally once the deed is done. It’s a vital part of the whole ceremony. And preparation for that level of honesty is vital beforehand – pitching it at a level at which they can cope.

    The vast majority of people still want a hymn and a pray and a traditional undertaker. But that is changing – I see it with my own eyes. I don’t think we need to worry too much about imposing new ritual. The pendulum is swinging – my evidence is that many more people are now taking control of the new opportunities…..stumbling along the way of course – they often need a good guide…… but taking a pinch of the old, a pinch of the new and making a whole new recipe suitable for today.

    We can impose all we like – the natives are revolting.

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