The modern funeral is a grief-bypass procedure?

Stewart Dakers is a 76 year-old voluntary community worker with a weekly column in the Guardian. He wrote a piece in last week’s Spectator about funerals. Here’s a taster:

Funerals ain’t what they used to be. Today’s emphasis is more on celebrating a life past than honouring the future of a soul. While I am not averse to a celebratory element, the funeral is morphing into a spiritually weightless bless-fest. This was brought home to me last week at the funeral of Enid, a lady I knew only through our mutual attendance at bingo in the community centre.

I was uncomfortable from the moment we gathered outside the church, where my sombre suit set me apart from the Technicolor crowd of family and friends. The atmosphere was more akin to a wedding, even a hen do, than a funeral, the air drenched in perfume and aftershave. Inside, there was pew-to-pew chatter, wall-to-wall music (Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’, inevitably), not a single moment of silence, and not a single sacred song, let alone a prayer (an inaccurately mumbled Lord’s Prayer excepted). There were two readings, one by a grand-niece of perhaps eight, snivelling, bless, a poem about being only next door; then a nephew offering a eulogy, the main point of which was that his aunt had been a keen gardener ‘and she will plant her flowers in heaven’.

I know I shouldn’t sneer. Religion, the Anglican version anyhow, is a broad church with a wide liturgical spectrum. But I could not help feeling that such celebration missed the point. It somehow connected with a virtual life rather than a real death. It was spiritual displacement activity.

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

Singing them on their way

Posted by Tim Clark

It’s our belief that the sound of unaccompanied natural voice singing, in three- or four-part harmony, can create a space for strong emotion; can console and comfort, can embody and say things we can’t say in prose or poetry alone. 

We sing in English and Welsh, with a scattering of Spanish, Gaelic, Maori, Xhosa, as the occasion demands. We sing a capella, though we are prepared to be organ-tolerant if necessary. We sing songs, laments, hymns, simple chant-like refrains. If we had a theme tune it might be “The Parting Glass,” but we are getting excited and a bit gospelly about learning “Lean On Me.” We cover North Wales, but we did go in for foreign travel once (Shrewsbury…)

 We have no religious affiliation, preference or prejudice – we’ve sung for atheists and agnostics, Catholics and for all I know or care, Rosicrucians. We’re interested in good funerals, not definitions. 

We are not a professional choir, i.e. we don’t do it “for the money.” We ask for some help with travel costs, that’s all. This is important; what we are committed to is enriching funeral ceremonies, not ourselves. We love singing, of course, or we wouldn’t do it, but we’re local people singing,  for – usually – local people. 

Why am I telling you all this? Because we grew out of Bangor Community Choir, and I want there to be Threnodies available across the land. Community choirs sometimes sing at funerals, of course (for friends, members) but it would be just great if they organised themselves into providing a local Threnody. Why not approach yours and give them a nudge? Get in touch via Charles at the Good Funeral Guide if you want to know more about how we work.

Window shopping in Lubeck

Yeah yeah, it’s a rubbish photo, I know, I’m not blind. It’s the best I could do. It’s an undertaker’s window.

In Germany. Me and the missus have been holidaying there. This undertaker is in the ancient city of Lubeck. As you can see (through a glass, darkly) the display is a series of objects on plinths.  It’s eyecatching. There’s a sign asking people who don’t understand the symbolism of the objects displayed to pop in and find out. It gives a reason for people to go in before they absolutely have to. Brilliant, eh? Beats luring the bowls team in to buy a funeral plan (the condemned men and women had a nice cup of tea and a sandwich).

Well of course we had to pop in and ask about the display and have a bit of a gossip. I don’t speak more German than it takes me to order pils and buy tobacco, but my wife (the one with the brains) is fluent. It ought to have been a good opportunity for her to practise, but the undertaker who greeted us, Carsten Berend, insisted on speaking English.

We had a good chat, and might have had a better one if Carsten hadn’t been so busy. They cremate 80% of their clients. We talked about the reuse of graves, and he was surprised that something considered so normal in Germany is reckoned so unacceptable by British politicians. He told us that there are 30 undertakers in Lubeck serving a population just over 200,000. His is a high-end business. He expressed exasperation at the incursion of semi-trained, cheapskate opportunists, which of course is something we know nothing about in Britain. Their window displays are created for them by an arty marketing agency and change regularly. We never found out what the display above actually means. Very nice piece of work, though, even better than dusty tombstones and upside-down bluebottles.

You can see their website here. You’ll need Google Translate to help you work through it.

It may intrigue you to know what music Germans like to play at funerals. Here’s what they recommend:

Screenshot 2014-08-03 at 11

Yup, Germans are much more relaxed about beastly foreign influences than we xenophobic Brits. Some of the songs you’ve never heard of are worth a listen. Not the Mancini Dornervogel (Thornbirds) perhaps. Xavier Naidoo is interesting; here’s his Abschied Nehmen (Farewell). Gronenmeyer’s really good. Try Der Weg (The Way) and Halt Mich (Hold Me), with its searing sax.

Historical note. So many people wanted to live in medieval Lubeck that they built houses for artisans in the gardens of the merchants’ houses. Thy are reached through narrow alleys. The only planning condition was that that the alley had to be wide enough to convey a coffin.

The stalemate of funeral choice

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Cherishing freedom of speech we often quote the line, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. So democrats proselytise in order to influence others, and sometimes those influenced leave one tribe and join another. A far cry from relativism, the message is, choice is good, but don’t choose them when you can choose us.

Funeralworld is no exception, and no more so than in matters of faith. To illustrate the point, let’s fisk the views of an Anglican priest who embraces the clarity of set liturgy over the burden of unfettered individualism. Fisking in red.

Father Edward Tomlinson writes:

‘In the last few years it has become painfully obvious that many families I have conducted funerals for have absolutely no desire for any Christian content whatsoever’.

Yes, it’s clear many folk book the funeral services of C of E priests without any real enthusiasm for religious significance.

‘I have stood at the crem like a lemon, wondering why on earth I am present at the funeral of somebody led in by the tunes of Tina Turner, summed up in pithy platitudes of sentimental and secular poets and sent into the furnace with ‘I Did It My Way’ blaring out across the speakers. To be brutally honest I can think of 100 better ways of spending my time as a priest on God’s earth’.

If you were saying noone should ever choose Sinatra, I’d call you a snob and busybody. As you’re saying, ‘why Sinatra and me, a priest?’, I sympathise. So what are you going to do about it? You could perhaps create a sensitive compromise that gently allows God’s presence to resonate: for example, people who haven’t been to a service in years might value their choice of, say, the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love being linked to the words from 1 Timothy that ‘we bring nothing into this world and we take nothing out.’ Granted, you might be scratching your head to find such a link with some secular songs. ‘My Way’? If this smacks of fudge, your other option is to decline bookings unless they request pure liturgy.

‘Today the norm is to place the liturgy in the hands of a humanist provider or ancient crumbling cleric who will do as told, in short those who will not trouble undertakers with unavailability’.

The norm is not to place the liturgy in secular hands, although civil celebrants are indeed increasingly chosen for non-liturgical services. However, you’re right that undertakers have retired priests on speed dial due to their availability. But you did say working priests were quite busy enough doing priestly things without sitting through Tina Turner at the crem. Also, it’s uncharitable to refer to old people as ‘crumblies’. ‘Wrinklies’ is more acceptable.

‘I am troubled that pastoral care is being left in the hands of those whose main aim is to make money. And I am further concerned that an opportunity for evangelism is slipping through our fingers’.

It’s wrong to assume civil celebrants and retired priests are just in it for the money. Secondly, while it’s our duty to bear witness, evangelising of a finger-wagging nature is likely to score an own goal at a funeral where mourners have not specifically requested Christian liturgy. I return to the two C of E options: decline the booking or accept it, limiting evangelism to taking the secular elements and gently and resourcefully relating them to God’s universal truths.

‘It is my passionate belief that a requiem mass and the Christian prayers of ‘commendation and committal’ are not mere aesthetic choices in a market place of funeral options. Rather something real and significant is happening, on earth and in heaven, when these take place. Because I am a priest, I want to point the way to Jesus Christ. Naturally there will be those who disagree with my beliefs, I think they should have the right to exercise this choice, even if I think they’s misguided. But if this is your position, why invite me to the party?’

I agree Christian funeral liturgy is profound and sacred, and we both hold it can’t be imposed involuntarily on those who don’t share the faith, whether atheists, Jews, Muslims or Hindus. If you don’t feel you can point the way to Christ within the context of a funeral with secular elements, there’s no alternative but to opt out.

Your frustration is no doubt caused by genuine concern that people are missing out by choosing ‘Simply the Best’ on a sound system over prayers of commendation and committal. Perhaps your exasperation is heightened as you believe more people would share your view if they truly thought about what they wanted from a funeral. Some Christian-lites might, but decided atheists would not. The purpose of a funeral is in the eye of the beholder. That’s not relativism as we can still hold firm views for ourselves.

Footnote 1: I deliberately didn’t fully identify the priest until now as there’s a twist in this tale. Father Ed homlinson shared the above views while he was C of E vicar of St Barnabas church, Tunbridge Wells. He’s since converted to Catholicism where what can and cannot be done within the requiem mass are clearly defined. So no more hand-wringing conflicts between priestly obligations and pressure to offer secular choice. The menu is set, not à la carte. It’s now down to the free will of members of the Church to choose to dine or lapse elsewhere.

Footnote 2: At the time of speaking out, Fr T got a mixed response. ‘I think that most cremations I have been to that have been run by a humanist have all been more than off key,’ said Jane Greer. ‘Give me a good burial with a proper vicar anytime. It’s the difference between Cod’s Roe and Caviar.’ Denise Kantor Kaydar disagreed. ‘It should not matter if someone wants Verdi’s Requiem or Frank Sinatra. I think he is being a little insensitive, but he could be trying to incite a debate.’

Why live music is best at funerals

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

A follow up to Charles’s lyrical piece about the inadequacy of music at funerals.

With recorded music at funerals, people tend to sit down, listen, tap a foot, perhaps, and, if it’s really working its magic, meaningfully relate the music to the memory of the dead person. Whether pop lyrics or piano concerto, our response is predominantly a private reaction within the mind, but we’re likely to be distanced from full interaction by the fact the sound is projected into the room by loud speakers. It’s from a different time and place.

Live music emanates from activity in the room. If it’s a hymn or song, we stand up and participate, granted with varying degrees of success. The result is unlikely to be as polished as the professional recording but it punches beyond its weight due to its resonance as a collective effort unifying participators—created in real time, not just imbibed in real time. It’s the same principle when people recommend family and friends carry the coffin themselves.

Imagine the hymn or song is led, not by an organist or pianist present at the funeral, but by a recorded musical accompaniment. Aside from bringing to mind karaoke, the full impact of live music is again diminished.

There’s also a case for live music performed by professionals, whether choir, string quartet or guitar-strumming solo-singer. Sure, the passive act of sitting down and listening to a performance doesn’t seem much different to doing the same for a recording. The difference is again that the musicians are sharing the moment. The chosen music might be universal but the rendition, flaws and all, is for the dead person and those present.

Footnote: I chose the image above of the iconic Glenn Gould as he exemplifies a pianist who brought his own unique style to music by the greats such as Bach. As the film below shows, Gould reminds us that the scores of composers are not diktats set in stone but are guides for artists who surprise with their interpretations of mood. Ironically, this cool, solitary genius hated performing concerts, preferring to record in a studio.

No Way

Over in the Philippines, karaoke is a popular pastime. According to the New York Times, after a hard day’s work, there’s nothing a weary person likes more than to find a bar, glug a beer and belt out a classic or two. 

This is not a matter of audience indifference. You’ve got to be good or you get stabbed:

In the past two years alone, a Malaysian man was fatally stabbed for hogging the microphone at a bar and a Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. 

One song is strictly off limits everywhere. Simply too dangerous. My Way. 

The authorities do not know exactly how many people have been killed warbling My Way in karaoke bars over the years in the Philippines, or how many fatal fights it has fueled. But the news media have recorded at least half a dozen victims in the past decade and includes them in a subcategory of crime dubbed the “My Way Killings.” 


Butch Albarracin, the owner of Center for Pop, a Manila-based singing school that has propelled the careers of many famous singers, was partial to what he called the “existential explanation.” 

“‘I did it my way’ — it’s so arrogant,” Mr. Albarracin said. “The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody. It covers up your failures. That’s why it leads to fights.” 

The song never leads to carnage at polite British funeral. But does it possibly leave a subliminal bad taste in the mouth? 

For what is a man, what has he got? 
If not himself, then he has naught

Read the entire New York Times piece here.

Red River Valley

From this valley they say you are going
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathways awhile

Come and sit by my side, if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy who loved you so true

I’ve been thinking a long time, my darling
Of the sweet words you never would say
Now, alas, must my fond hopes all vanish
For they say you are gong away

Do you think of the valley you’re leaving
O how lonely and how dreary it will be
And do you think of the kind hearts you’re breaking
And the pain you are causing to me

They will bury me where you have wandered
Near the hills where the daffodils grow
When you’re gone from the Red River Valley
For I can’t live without you I know

Gong With The Wind

A Musical Tribute & Dedication for ~ Mrs Emily H Levine~ July 13, 1924 – February 18, 2013

Gong & Original Music “Coming Sun” Performed and Composed by ~ David Leclerc

Location ~Myakka River Park~ Sarasota, Florida February 2013

Natural burial grounds: you need one of these. 

I Will Be Blessed — Ben Howard

Oh my ghost came by
Said who do you love the most
Who you wanna call before you dieOh my ghost came by here
Said who do you love the most
Who you gonna sing to ‘fore you’re goneOh hey heaven is the place we know
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go
Oh hey, heaven is the place we know
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we goOh my ghost came by here
Said who do you love the most
Who you gonna sing to ‘fore you go

Oh hey heaven is the place we know
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go
Oh hey, heaven is the place we know
Heaven is the arms that hold us
Long before we go

Oh if you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
Oh if you’re there
I will be blessed
Oh if you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
Oh if you’re there
I will be blessed
Oh if you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
I hear you’re there
I will be blessed
I will be blessed

Oh if you’re there
When the world comes to gather me in
Oh if you’re there
I will be blessed
I will be blessed

A big thank you to Georgina Pugh for sending us this.

No Tears In Glory

This old eye, is filled with sorrow
Heartaches and pain, and tears that flow
But when we reach there, city called Glory
We won’t have to cry no more


There’ll be no tears, no tears in Glory
Over there, no tears will flow
There’ll be no tears, no tears Glory
We wont have to cry no more

They tell me that heaven is a beautiful city
Jesus will be waiting, at the entering door
He’s going to wipe all, all my tears away
Oh we won’t have to cry no more

By and by we will reach that city, that we only live holy
Down here below, when I read my Bible it tells me so
It tells me that I won’t have to cry no more