Born on a barge and borne to his final resting place on a barge

Walter Harrison was born on the coal barge Baron in July 1921. He lived on the canal for 30 years and worked on the waterways for much of his life.

Family and friends of the pensioner, known as Wally, followed the coffin along the towpath.

Full story here

Ask not what you can do for the bereaved; ask what the bereaved can do for themselves

SCENE – A village wedding. Church bells. Assorted villagers have assembled at the lych gate waiting for a glimpse of the bride. They are joined by a TOURIST who happily happens to speak perfect English.

VILLAGER: There she is! Just coming round the corner now.  Ooh, it’s a Rolls!

TOURIST: Who’s that walking in front of it? That person in the Tudor costume and the three-cornered hat and, what’s that, a mace?

VILLAGER: That’s the wedding organiser.

TOURIST: Why is she walking in front of the car?

VILLAGER: It’s the way it’s done in this country. The wedding organiser walks in front of the car.  

TOURIST: But why?

VILLAGER: Oh, ah… tradition. Yes, it’s always been done that way. It’s the way we do it.

TOURIST: But a wedding is not about the wedding organiser –

VILLAGER: Oh, look at that dress! Doesn’t she look lovely! And look, there’s the bride!



The Great British Tradition whereby a funeral director walks in front of, or ‘pages’, a hearse is a well-loved custom stretching back to the heraldic funeral processions of the middle ages. Well, not really. Actually, they didn’t have funeral directors then, it was the Head of the College of Arms who would walk in front of the cortege. No, ah, paging is a lot more recent. There are several schools of thought about where it originated… and little chance of a consensus. Nowadays, it’s a ‘mark of respect’, that’s what it is. Will that do?

It is undeniably a good look.

Yes it is, and I think it is capable of adaptation. If funeral directors were to suggest to families that one or more of them might like to undertake this role instead, I wonder what the uptake would be.

What would be the point?

In a word, empowerment.

Why is it important to empower bereaved people at a funeral?

So that they can go home feeling proud of themselves. If a funeral is to be a valuable event, they need to feel proud they did their bit.

Would this not take away from the status of the funeral director?

Wrong question. Would it add value to the funeral? Yes, I think so. No one ever went wrong who sought to empower the bereaved. The trick is to find them things to do that they’re comfortable with.

But the job of a funeral director is to take all possible burdens from their families.

I respectfully disagree. The job of a funeral director is to organise an event where bereaved people can do good grief work. They can’t do that if they’re spectators. I repeat: they need to go home feeling they played their part in giving the person who died a good send-off. So, I say: ask not what you can do for the bereaved; ask what the bereaved can do for themselves.

Well, I don’t know that I’d want to be a funeral director if you took paging away from me.

Look, I may be wrong, I acknowledge that. But right now I do absolutely believe that you guys have got to stop obsessing about the price of funerals and start looking for ways to add value to them. You can do that in ways that cost nothing. This may be one. 

Politics and funerals

A topical post from our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

Timed to counter the low turnout of voters at the mayoral and local council elections last week, did you catch the BBC advertisement challenging political apathy by chronicling how so many everyday activities–from the fat count in our sausages to the safety of cyclists on the road–are politicised?

Despite the mid-term anti-Government vote that brought some good news for Labour and disappointment for the Tories, and especially the Lib-Dems, Londoners of my acquaintance are relieved to see Boris returned, and the defeat of tax-avoiding, gaff-prone has-been Red Ken.

But how does politics–local and national–impact on the funeral business? Healthcare clearly affects death tolls, and the economy the lot of small businesses such as independent undertakers. Here are five more, big and small, issues with which local councillors might perhaps busy themselves:

How shall we avoid traffic disruption by town centre funeral processions?

Can we empower the police to hose down those awful ‘God Hate Fags’ protesters who upset the bereaved at private funerals?

How can we secure more land for cemeteries?

How can we placate believers in man-made global warming by making cremation more eco-friendly?

How can we tackle the class war issue of inheritance tax and death duties?

Please add some meat to the bone of this shamefully skeletal list.   

Has the funeral procession hit the buffers?

Posted by Charles

We’ve talked quite a lot on this blog recently about ritual. There have been times when a better and more accessible word might have been theatre.

For what is a funeral if it is not theatre?

The playscript for the drama we call a funeral, together with its delivery, is, for the most part, the responsibility of the ceremony leader. But funeral directors get to play a major part in act one, scene one, the procession, and, though they love dressing up for it, I think many of them have lost sight of the story they’re supposed to be telling and, therefore, the role they are supposed to be playing.

The story of a funeral procession is that of the last journey ever taken by a dead person here on Earth. The dead person is accompanied, as Thomas Long expresses it, with love and lamentation to the Edge of Eternity. The element of accompaniment is central. 

It’s a ritual journey, obviously. The dead person’s last actual journey was probably to the hospital by ambulance. There, on their deathbed, family and friends hopefully got a chance to say goodbye. A funeral re-enacts this ritually, theatrically: a ritualised final journey followed by a ritualised goodbye.

In the olden time a funeral procession could make its way to the place of farewell at a dramatically slow pace (there’s no practical reason for going slowly). Those whom the procession passed amongst would stop and doff their hats and bow and pay their ritual last respects. It was a good show.

That’s all been consigned to the past, borne away by traffic and indifference. Keeping a procession together now through traffic lights and roundabouts is wing-and-a-prayer stuff. The first 100 meters works well enough, the undertaker leading the hearse at a stately walking pace down the street. Like all good actors, s/he is in character. So are the understrappers. Splendid. Then we get to the main road and s/he dives in. The actors come out of character, most of them – all the while keeping up appearances. Heaven knows what talk they talk, what jokes they swap, let’s not speculate. This part of the journey is not about stately procession, it’s about getting to the crem on time. It’s a hiatus, an ellipsis. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

Which is why, in a film, unless it’s a satirical comedy, you’d jump cut to when the church or crematorium hoves into view and the occupants of the hearse get back in character. The funeral director hops out and carries on where s/he left off earlier for all of 200 metres max. And stops just short of the coffin’s destination.

If a playwright wrote it like that you’d shoot him. For this is the point at which the principal actors are joined by The Crowd. When you’ve got that many people on stage there must be ensemble action, a single focus of attention. We don’t get any of that. As the limousine doors are opened and the occupants unfurl under the indulgent but prurient gaze of The Crowd, the Men In Black Macs are, severally, easing the coffin out of the hearse and doing things with flowers.

The procession has entirely lost its momentum, not in itself fatal, but it can never regain a sense of purpose because, by the time it is ready to move on once more, it’s far too close to journey’s end. It falls over the finishing line. The Crowd was never part of a procession. The minister declaimed “I am the resurrection and the life” to empty air and an organist. The Men in Black Macs probably put the coffin on the catafalque before everyone was in and sitting. It can work out a bit better in a church, where everyone is in first, but this denies The Crowd any processional role.

Could it be staged better? In theory, yes. A procession — for those who want one — needs at least 80 metres, a decent run-up. Everyone out of cars, on foot, standing tall. Coffin out, too. People formed up in some sort of order of precedence, leader/s (optional) in front of the coffin, stepping out as one, everyone playing their part, understanding the part they are playing, and quite possibly singing, too.

In practice, no. To do all that you need a gathering-place. Most funeral venues don’t have one of those.

So we’re down to one person walking in front of a car. This does retain an element of theatre. But you can’t help feeling that the grandeur and much of the point of the narrative has been lost, and that’s a shame.

Too much me, funeral directors, not enough us.