The changing face of Irish funerals

By Richard Rawlinson

Dublin undertaker Massey Brothers is responding to the changing attitude to religion in Ireland by offering families non-denominational funerals, online advice and motorbike hearses.

While these initiatives may no longer be especially novel in Britain, they’re causing a bit of a stir in Ireland’s conservative, competitive and often quite unsophisticated funeral industry. There are 600 funeral directors in the country serving some 28,000 bereaved families a year, 84% of whom called themselves Catholic in the 2012 census. The industry remains unregulated, most businesses are part-time, and fewer than 200 are members of the IAFD. There are also reports of some undertakers bribing hospital and hospice staff to recommend their services.

Massey Brothers is introducing bespoke funerals after observing that even the nature of church funerals has changed, with evening removals (the deceased’s overnight stay in the church) becoming far less common.

With more undertakers now having websites, competition over price, service and transparency is hotting up. Undertakers can visit each week and see how many funerals were organised by rival firms. Then there’s, a website offering non-religious funerals where packages (limo, coffin, notice in the newspaper etc) can be booked entirely online. Its Direct Funeral package (removal straight to the cemetery/crematorium) starts at €890.

Meanwhile, the healing process in the Church following the abuse scandals remains slow and painful. The mood has often changed from sycophancy to hatred, and some worried faithful express concern that the crisis is choking the life out of their parish life because the many good priests are now hiding for fear of an abuse claim.

While lamenting the vile predilections of abuser priests and the cover-ups, many faithful are offering priests encouragement by saying how inappropriate it is for the innocent to be constantly saying sorry for heinous crimes that they personally did not commit.

Ireland has experienced two extremes: fawning over priests and now the acceptable abuse of priests. The answer is in the middle: the rediscovery that the highest role of the priest is not to be a status symbol for an Irish family (‘the parish priest sat with me during morning tea, so I’m the more important person in the village’). But the priest is the person who goes into Persona Christi, standing in the place of Christ so he may offer the Eucharist.

Funeral mystery

From Swaziland:

MAFUCULA – Some mourners at the funeral of Lucky Nhlanhla Sifundza, the Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC) employee who went missing and was confirmed dead three weeks later, were disappointed that they could not see what was inside his casket. 

They had hoped that the Sifundzas would open the casket and allow them to see what was inside before taking it to the cemetery.

They were interested in seeing the inside of the light-brown casket because they had heard that only the deceased’s clothes would be buried. His body was never found.

The funeral was at Mafucula community cemetery yesterday.

The area is situated about 30 kilometres from Tambankulu on the way to Mhlume.

As the vigil continued, some of the mourners kept asking one another if the casket would be opened so that they could see what was inside. 

Attending the funeral were more than 300 people who included Lucky’s colleagues.

At around 4am, one of the elders of the family made an announcement that it was time for the family to start preparing for the burial.

Mourners waited with the hope that the clothes in the casket would be displayed.

This did not happen.


Religious funerals: why Jews bury their dead

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

The first crematorium to be opened in London, in 1902, is directly opposite Golders Green Jewish Cemetery, opened in 1895. Apart from their Hoop Lane location, they share little in common. Traditional Jews, like traditional Christians and Muslims, believe in burial: and burial only in a Jewish cemetery, with a funeral at which only fellow Jews handle the body, carry the coffin and fill the grave. While Jews, like Christians, are free to lapse and go with the relativist secular flow, orthodox Jewish teaching is absolutely clear on this, whether or not it seems counter-cultural in modern liberal society.

‘Earth you are, and to earth you will return,’ were God’s words to Adam in Genesis. Jews believe the body’s natural decomposition in the earth, the source of all life, is directly commensurate with the soul’s ability to return to its divine root. They hold that the soul does not depart the body immediately, meaning incineration in a furnace would be spiritually traumatic: the soul is in an in-between state when it has no body with which to relate to the world, and is not yet free of its tenuous bonds.

This belief contrasts with the more pragmatic view, held by Buddhists and atheists alike, that upon death what is left is only matter and how remains are treated is of no consequence to the well being of the departed.

As a deterrent to cremation, ashes should not be interred in a Jewish cemetery, and the bereaved are even encouraged to go against the wishes of the deceased if contrary to tradition. Scholarly Rabbi Naftali Silberberg says: ‘While ordinarily Jewish law requires the deceased’s children to go to great lengths to respect the departed’s wishes, if someone requests to be cremated or buried in a manner which is not in accordance with Jewish tradition, we nevertheless provide him/her with a Jewish burial’.

By way of justification, he explains: ‘It is believed that since the soul has now arrived to the World of Truth it surely sees the value of a proper Jewish burial, and thus administering a traditional Jewish burial is actually granting what the person truly wishes at the moment.

‘Furthermore, if anyone, all the more so your father and mother, asks you to damage or hurt their body, you are not allowed to do so. For our bodies do not belong to us, they belong to God’.

The belief that the body is a sacred vessel for the soul, and simply on loan from God, is complemented by the belief that Man was created in God’s image, further strengthening the case against bodily mutilation. These two reasons combine to explain why religious Jews oppose tattoos and piercings, and autopsies and embalming which violate the body’s completeness, defacing it so it cannot be returned in its entirety, as it was given.

As with most laws, there are, however, exceptions. ‘After the Holocaust, many conscientious Jews gathered ashes from the extermination camp crematoria and respectfully buried them in Jewish cemeteries,’ says Silberberg.

He adds: ‘An individual who was raised in a non-religious atmosphere and was never accorded a proper Jewish education cannot be held responsible for his or her lack of observance. This general rule applies to individuals who opt to be cremated because their education and upbringing did not equip them with the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice in this area. This assumption impacts some of the legal results presented’.

While no one would deny the victims of the Nazi death camps the funeral of their faith, some might find the latter clause perhaps offers ‘wriggle room’ too far. Religious doctrine is full of such dilemmas which, on the one hand, demonstrate compassion but, on the other hand, dilute and contradict the absolutes of orthodoxy. If an unschooled Jew is, as a consequence, lapsed, should he/she have a Jewish funeral anyway? And would he/she, and the bereaved family, expect or demand one? When posed with such a question, people invariably ask, ‘What would God say?’

Footnote: The death last year of tattooed Jewish-lite pop star Amy Winehouse illustrates the reality of religious compromise. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium after a Jewish funeral service, and her remains are buried at Edgewarebury Jewish Cemetery.

Next week: Hindu funerals

Kiwi death rites

From an article in

New Zealanders may be shy and reserved, but we hold long, personalised funerals for our loved ones, and show far more emotion than Norwegians, Swedes, English and Scots.

Our funerals lean towards the American style, where everything – down to the cup of tea and biscuits afterwards – is organised by a funeral home.

Auckland researcher Sally Raudon, with the assistance of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust grant, researched death, dying and funerals in New Zealand, and the four other countries.

The results were surprising, given the perceived similarities between the countries, particularly when it came to the time between death and a funeral.

In New Zealand funerals generally happen about three to five days after someone has died.

In England one to three weeks is the norm, and in Stockholm, Sweden, the average interval between death and the funeral is five to six weeks.

And the Swedish do not embalm, she said.

“We embalm almost automatically. That’s because a lot of our funeral directors went to the US in the middle of last century and came back with these techniques to be more professional.”

In New Zealand many people speak, and most ceremonies last about an hour. “When we have a funeral it is not uncommon for someone from the family to talk, maybe a work colleague, someone from a sports club. Sometimes it is like an open mic session. And if it is a young person who has died, it’s common for up to 12 people to talk,” Raudon said.

“Our funerals are very unusual because we focus intimately on the person. New Zealand funerals often bring together all the parts of someone’s life to present a biography.

“We think things like using a celebrant, showing photos of the person and having several people speaking, are normal. But that isn’t what happens in other countries.”

“In Norway and Sweden using photos is frowned on as too personal, and in England they say they don’t have time for that kind of personalisation.

Raudon said there was now a trend in New Zealand at the other end of the emotional scale – direct disposal – where a person could request they be put in a plain casket and taken directly to be cremated, without a funeral service or viewing.

Tamara Linnhoff of the Good Funeral Guide NZ here tells me in an email that  “NZ is still way behind the UK in terms of talking openly about funeral wishes and so the vast majority of families make decisions guided by traditional funeral directors.” 

Find the article here.

Funerals from around the world — South Africa

Francis Rasuge, a police officer, was killed by her lover in 2004. Her body was not found until earlier this year, buried in the yard of her lover’s house. 

Francis Nyadi Rasuge was finally laid to rest yesterday afternoon at the Horingnestkrans Cemetery in Pretoria North.

There was a touch of sad bitterness at the service in Temba Stadium with speaker after speaker telling the weepy human interest story of this dark and mysterious case.

A white casket draped in the South African flag, manned by men in blue and a policewoman’s hard cap laid on it, was a telling testament that the physical or rather the bones, has finally gotten its dues. The mysterious interferences, others spiritual and man-made, rumours and conspiracies that added to the public’s opinion ladder, were yesterday committed to earth together with Rasuge’s bones.

Ralph Jones, who introduced himself as the cousin of Rasuge at the service, said he was disturbed by the fact that the crime scene where Rasuge’s bones were exhumed has not been cordoned off.

“That yard is a graveyard . that yard is a tombstone. As a family we believe that the crime scene should have been cordoned off because we assume that it is a crime scene.”

He added: “If you were in our shoes you would understand the pain we are feeling today. The pain is unbearable. The pain is unexplained to the family and the mother.

“There were people who knew that Rasuge was being abused and they kept quiet. This is disturbing.”

The mood was both celebratory and sombre, with the SAPS Gauteng Band and Drill Platoon adding the sorrowful tone to the funeral service.

Solly Moholo was also there singing the famous struggle song Solomon. Though not sure about the connection of this song to the funeral, mourners were happy to turn the service into a rally.

Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane, hard-bitten by the inspiration of words, quoted Pablo Neruda’s Autumn Testament, which start with “A day dressed in mourning falls from the bells”, went on to bless the mourners with the words of faith from Thomas Edison and then the bible – quoting from Isaiah 41:10 to Romans 4:17.

The service soon turned into political speeches with minister of water and environmental affairs Edna Molewa extolling the work of the ANC Women’s League, and Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa complimenting his charges on a job well done.

Rasuge was no Brenda Fassie or Whitney Houston, but she was accorded a funeral fit for a superstar or a martyr.


Funerals from around the world – Kathmandu

On the river bank opposite, a small funeral procession arrived, carrying a bright red coffin. A group of men, followed by women in saris, stood around for a while chatting, then opened the coffin and pulled out a body, wrapped in a white sheet. The mourners lugged it down to the river, where they left it with its feet in the water. An older gentleman was assisted down the bank to scoop up water and pour it on the eyes of the departed. The face was now exposed; it was a woman, presumably his wife. The family members all took out mobile phones and ritually took final snaps of her. The body was then strewn with flowers, wrapped in orange cloth and carried to the funeral pyre further down the bank.

A young boy climbed into the coffin and tried it out as a boat, paddling it along the river to join the next stage of the ceremony.

Funerals from around the world: Buddhism

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Is it uncharitable to start a brief discussion of Buddhist funerals by alluding to Mark Juergensmeyer’s recent book, Buddhist Warfare, which shows another side of a religion widely seen in the West as purely peaceful? 

This other side includes the recent example of armed monks in southern Thailand defending their communities from attacks by the drug trade and Muslims. For centuries, Buddhist monks have been directly involved in conflict across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, but successful propaganda since the 1900s presented mystical aspects of their traditions while leaving out the violent history.

Juergensmeyer simply illustrates that Buddhists share the human spectrum of emotions which include anger and violence. It nevertheless shatters the fiction of a religion seemingly without shortcomings.

Buddhist writer Thupten Tsering welcomes this reality check. ‘They see Tibetans as cute, sweet, warmhearted. I tell people, when you cut me, I bleed just like you,’ he says.

Buddhism is a way of life that concerns itself with moral conduct and quest for enlightenment. It keeps regulated ritual to a minimum, seeing it as being applicable mainly for the discipline of its monks.

Often credited with more common sense than other religions, Buddhism teaches that upon death what is left is only matter and how remains are treated is of no consequence to the well being of the departed.

However, they, of course, act respectfully towards the bodily remains of loved ones, giving them a dignified send-off, whether or not they invite monks to conduct rites at their cremation or burial ceremonies.

As an act of gratitude they perform rites such as carrying out meritorious deeds in their memory. Rather like the earning/buying of indulgences of Christendom past, they hope charity giving and other wholesome deeds in the name of the deceased will share merit and lead to good rebirth.

They also claim the good and bad deeds (kamma) of the deceased play a part in their next life, a belief that might be loosely compared with Heaven and Hell, but on Earth. 

A Buddhist funeral tends to be simple, with lavish spending eschewed in favour of donations to earthly causes, with the merits transferred to the departed.

However, they ensure the place where the body lies is serene, the open coffin accompanied by a portrait of the deceased placed in front of an altar and a statue of a Buddha.

When paying respects, guests bow in silence, and join in any chanting. Family members and friends may conduct the ceremony but, if monks are invited, they chant suttas, after which pamsukala robes are offered, and the merits transferred. The casket is then sealed. 

Green Light For Tower of Silence In English Seaside Town

Posted by Charles

In a move which is sending shockwaves through an English tourist resort, council chiefs in Weymouth, Dorset, have given the go-ahead for followers of the Zoroastrian religion to expose the bodies of their dead in the midst of sunbathing holidaymakers.

The down-at-heel, bucket-and-spade seaside town has granted the Zoroastrian Council of Great Britain (ZCGB) controversial planning permission to build a Tower of Silence in a prominent position on its historic seafront. 

 Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies pollute the earth. When they die, their bodies are placed on raised platforms, more correctly known as dakhmas, where they are exposed to the elements and birds of prey. The Weymouth tower will stand 300 feet high and the dead will be brought up to the platform by means of a lift in the central column.

Although the dead bodies will not be visible from the ground, some Weymouth residents are up in arms about the scheme.

Single mother Tracey Brockway said “It’s  disgusting. The whole town will be covered in flies. How can anyone lie on the beach knowing what’s going on up there? As far as I’m concerned this is the last nail in the coffin for Weymouth.”

However, most Weymouth residents are in favour of the tower. In common with many seaside resorts, the town’s tourist trade has been in decline for decades and many have rallied round the council’s initiative.

Weymouth and Portland Borough Council’s brief holder for Leisure and Tourism, Peter Traskey, said: “Traditional tourist streams are drying up as people increasingly holiday abroad. We need to diversify, and we see multicultural funeral tourism as the future for our town.”

Mr Traskey also gave credence to reports that the council is in discussion with the Hindu community to establish a burning ghat on the quay recently vacated by Condor Ferries. The River Wey is currently undergoing an elaborate consecration process. 

The council is even considering a scheme submitted by the Natural Death Centre to hold spectacular Viking funerals in Weymouth Bay in a Viking longboat made of steel which can be re-used after each open-air cremation. “I think it’s a great idea,” said Traskey. “We are right behind this initiative.”

The RSPB is supporting the Weymouth Tower of Silence. RSPB spokesperson Jonathan Taylor told us, “We anticipate that the region’s dwindling cormorant population will boosted by this important food source.”

Mel Stewart, landlady of the Bon Repos boarding house, told the GFG, “This town has been on its backside (actually she said arse) for years. When the Olympics are over, what will there be for us? I’m doing a complete ethnic refurb and re-naming my place Memories of Mecca. I’m advertising my full Zoroastrian breakfast and funeral teas. These people are going to be a shot in the arm for the local economy.”

Local police chief,  Inspector Richard Honeysett, told us: “We are seeking permission from the ZCGB to detain unconscious drunks and drug addicts on the tower overnight. When they come round and find themselves surrounded by dead bodies it’s going to be a wake-up call for them. “

Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of the ancient empire of the Medes and Persians until it was displaced by Islam. Its devotees found a safe haven in India. The 2010 Census revealed that the number of worshippers in the UK stands at roughly 350,000. 

Weymouth was made famous by King George III, who holidayed there throughout his reign. It is distinguished by its fine Georgian and Regency architecture, and by its public lavatory, which still sports a cannonball fired into it by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army.

The town is held in low esteem by its rugged and dynamic neighbours, the inhabitants of the Isle of Portland, who have never reconciled themselves to their local government partnership with Weymouth, and are holding themselves aloof from the tower initiative.

A salt-caked island fisherman commented, “This tower they’re all talking about — they’re clutching at straws, aren’t they? I’ll tell you what I think of the council. It’s a council of despair.” 

Ahura Massada, a spokesperson for the ZCGB, said, “We have been searching for a site for a Tower of Silence for many past years. On every occasion we have come eyebrow to eyebrow with prejudice. But the people of Weymouth have enfolded us in their bosom, and we thank them from our hearts.” 

In July and August this year, Weymouth will host the Olympic 2012 sailing events. The Tower of Silence is planned to open on 1 April 2013.


My father told me that he attended a funeral in the parish of Tuosist, in South Kerry, at the turn of the century. As the coffin was being taken in a cart to the local graveyard at Kilmackillogue, three women keeners sat on top of it, howling and wailing at intervals. The parish priest, on horseback, met the funeral near Derreen, a few miles from the graveyard, and rode at its head along the road. As soon as he heard the three women howl loudly , he turned his horse around and trotted back until he reached them, where they sat on the coffin. He started to lash them with his whip, as the cart passed by, and ordered them to be silent. This they did, but on reaching the graveyard, they again took up their wailings, whereupon the priest forced them down from the coffin with his whip. They were afraid to enter the graveyard to howl at the graveside. This put an end to the hiring of keening women in that parish. 

Ó Suilleabháin, 1973

If we can get a better ref for this, we’ll give it to you. Sent in by Phoebe Hoare, to whom we say thank you. 

Abusua do funu – The family loves the corpse


Mr Mensah a retired head teacher in Kwahu-Tafo, died in 1995 in Accra, where he was receiving medical treatment. His body was deposited in a mortuary for about a month. During that period, his children organized a full facelift of the house to prepare it for a worthy funeral: the roof and other parts of the house were repaired, the large courtyard was cemented, the house was painted, electricity was brought to the house and the road leading to the house was improved. Many of the things the old man had wanted to do during his life were done for him after his life, while his body was waiting in limbo. His children, one of whom lived in the USA, took care of the (re)construction work.

This is how they do it in Ghana, a country whose funeral rituals are little known beyond those groovy coffins we all love. Let’s not overlook the fact that Ghana incorporates many peoples and religions, each of which does its own thing. The Ghanaian funeral that we all know a little about is the Akan funeral.

The structure of Akan society is matrilinear. Akans place low value on marriage, so weddings are no big deal. Throughout their lives Akans cleave, not unto their spouse, but unto  the abusua, the matrilineal family. Akans divorce freely and easily. A woman will often walk away from her marriage once she’s had children. A man is expected to favour his sister’s children over his own. This has an effect on the way old people are looked after. You look less to your children, more to your abusua, to look after you when you get shaky. [Source]

If Akans don’t do weddings, boy do they do funerals. A funeral is a time for the abusua to celebrate itself publicly and assert its status. It is a social event. Much loved family members are given wonderful send-offs. So too are undeserving family members who may have been despised. Come one, come all. And a notable peculiarity of some of these lavish funerals is that they afford the deceased a lot more care when they’re dead than when they were alive and most in need of it. Some small social stigma attaches to those who don’t look after ailing family members, but no abusua could ever live down the disgrace of failing to give them a proper funeral. This stimulates lifelong funeral-going. In order to ensure the attendance and donations of others at your funeral you must have first attended and donated to as many of theirs as you could — every Saturday for many Ghanaians. If you don’t go to theirs, they won’t come to yours. 

Eighty per cent of Ghanaians live on around $2 a day. A funeral costs an average $2,500–£3,000. 

People dress up and travel to visit a funeral in another town or village. In turn, they expect the bereaved family to entertain them with show, music, dance, drinks, and sometimes food. In the evening it can be hard to find transport back to town, when trotros (minibuses for public transport) are stuffed with funeral guests going home. And every Saturday night people dressed in black and red funeral cloth flock together in Hotel de Kingsway to end the day’s funeral by dancing to the tunes of highlife music. Funerals are at the heart of Asante culture and social life. Asante funerals are also the terrain of great creativity, where various forms of expression and art come together. Cultural groups perform traditional drumming or songs; people show their dancing skills; highlife musicians compose popular songs on the deep sorrow caused by death; pieces of poetic oratory praise the life of the deceased; portrait paintings and sculptures are put on the grave; photographs are enlarged, framed and exhibited or printed on T-shirts; video shots are taken and edited into a beautiful document; people dress up in the latest funeral fashion; and sometimes scenes from the life of the deceased are acted out in theatre. Death, more than any other life event, seems to inspire people to artistic creations.

One could expect a traditional ritual, centred around the extended family and around beliefs about death and ancestorship, to reduce in importance under the influence of individualisation, urbanisation, the market economy, and Christianity. The opposite scenario is taking place in Ghana. Funerals are, more than any other ceremony, increasingly gaining in scale and importance. [Source]

One technological innovation above all others is responsible for this. The refrigerated mortuary. The longer a corpse remains in the morgue, the more prestige is attached to the funeral. This is not only because a longer period allows the family to make more preparations for a successful funeral; the mere duration of the corpse’s stay in the mortuary commands respect. People know the high prices of mortuaries and can estimate the amount of money the family spent.

The mortuary also gives the abusua  more time to get the money together for something really spectacular. Only a few selected people are able to see the dead body during its stay in the mortuary. It is ‘nowhere’ for some time. The person has died, but not yet socially. Almost secretly his body has been transferred to a technological limbo, where it waits its ‘rise’ to death, the social recognition of having died … The quality of the corpse constitutes an important element in the success of the funeral … after its reappearance from the morgue, the corpse is dressed, decorated, perfumed and laid out to be admired by large crowds of mourners. It will be filmed, if the family’s finances permit, and the camera will zoom in, revealing the smallest details of the dead face. It is no wonder that relatives do their utmost to assure that their corpses are well maintained, and tip the attendants at the mortuary for that purpose. In the brilliant Vimeo film below you can see that freezing the corpse makes it possible to stand it up at the wake. Please watch it.  

The upshot is that a hospital mortuary can become a major generator of income. In Nkawkaw the private Agyarkwa hospital accommodates 20 patients. Its mortuary hosts 60 corpses waiting for their funeral.

Some Ghanaians would like to reverse the trend towards ever more elaborate funerals, regarding them as a social problem and a bar to economic progress: 

One of the most serious attitudinal problems to have crept into the Ghanaian society is the insatiable desire to invest in the dead rather than the living. We go to bizarre extents to try to outdo each other in the grandeur of the funerals we organise. We take to task our compatriots who for better sanity or lack of resources try to organise relatively modest funerals, describing their efforts as “burying their loved ones like fowls”! … How can a people that hope to develop their impoverished nation become so obsessed with investment in the dead rather than the living? [Source]

In Britain we don’t have this problem. Our problem is too little, not too much.

More reading here, here, here, here and here.