Telling the essential apart from the accessory

Charles 5 Comments

Perhaps what we need just now is a bout of reactionaryism and a reappraisal of where funerals seem to be going in the light of where they have come from. 

We don’t have an intellectual hard-hitter over here like undertaker-poet Thomas Lynch, but what he says about American “monogrammed, one-off, highly personalised funerals” is broadly relevant to funerary trends over here, especially the rise of direct cremation. 

“The dead aren’t incidental to a funeral; the dead are the reason we have funerals.”

“One of the things we seem to have missed is the essential qualities, and we’ve gotten overfocussed on the accessories.”

“The corpse … is the problem we are trying to deal with and should be central to whatever goes on.”.

“The cultural impulse to treat cremation not as an alternative to burial, but as an alternative to bother.” 

Lynch seems to have relaxed his strictures on cremation. I think he said, once, “We burn the trash and we bury the treasure.” For all that, the book he has written with Thomas Long is a good and an essential read. It helps you make up your mind about things. 

If anything is going to kill funerals (apart from third-rate celebrants and undertakers who don’t understand the value of a funeral) it is going to be the evasion of bother. 

Here is the great man interviewed by the great Gail Rubin


  1. Charles

    “Good and an essential read” I got as far as chapter three and gave up.

    I will trust your judgement on this one Charles and give it another go. Better half should have bed warmed by now.

    Will let you know.


  2. Charles

    Yeah – I ordered a Thomas Long book in a flash after our very first conversation, Charles, and then covered it in exasperated pencil markings and underscored outrage. You are so right about the helping to make your mind up thing. Haven’t read the book cited above. Did love Lynch’s The Undertaking.

    Another Thomas (Moore) might take issue with the deriding of what is soulful, (and therefore tangible, close to home and personal) as an accessory. But as I type that word I am now thinking of an accessory as something that allows us access. Connection. Gew gaws and bullshit merchandising are not what I mean. Small, heartfelt and meaningful things are.

  3. Charles

    I haven’t read his books but, for these four minutes and eight seconds at any rate, everything the man says makes sense to me.

    Does anyone agree with me that the current fashion for what the trade alone calls ‘direct cremation’ is related, at least in part, to the public’s growing awareness of and dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be the expensive, unnecessary, inappropriate, unwanted, tiresome, irrelevant, fussy, foolish, pompous and (have I already said?) expensive ritual that habitually (as distinct from traditionally) accompanies the disposal of a corpse when it’s carried out by undertakers who call themselves funeral ‘directors’? Are they throwing the corpse out with the… er… bathwater?

    As for accessories, let’s not confuse them with components. When they merely adorn then they may distract from the function of the funeral (when I came away from the Green Funeral Exhibition in London a few years ago I was struck by how irrelevant to a ‘good funeral’ most of the exhibitors’ goods seemed to be). When they are original, thought-out ritual tools they do something quite different from ‘personalizing’ something impersonal.

    One of the best direct cremations I’ve experienced was when the
    living did indeed carry the coffin to the fire and witness the committal to the cremator – it was all done without premeditation or planning, and I certainly wouldn’t call the blanket the woman wrapped her mother’s body in, or the flowers from her garden she arranged in her coffin with her, or the tour of the cremation room afterwards as we took turns to stand sentinel over the burning bones, accessory to anything. The daughter commented that, after this involvement, a memorial service was superfluous for her.

    A picture coffin or a quirky hearse on the other hand; however beautiful, unless they’re relevant they risk becoming a mere decoration if they’re substituted for spontaneous involvement in active ritual, even it it’s just bringing a favourite object to put on the coffin instead of a wreath.

    I’m getting curious about this Lynch fellow now.

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