First impressions

By Richard Rawlinson

You want celebrants to say good things well, but how do you want them to dress? If you’re opting for a civil funeral, do you want them business-like in a dark suit or to join in any sartorial theme requested by the departed? If you’re opting for a religious funeral, do you prefer traditional vestments or those favoured by the more progressive clergy?

No stripping of the altars here

By Richard Rawlinson

The row at Haycombe crematorium in Bath over the replacement of the cross-etched 1960s window with a clear pane – offering a neutral blank canvas for visitors of different faiths and none – is contextualised by this example of tolerance and diversity.

The pictures here are of North London’s New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium, which probably reflects the capital’s multicultural diversity more than any other, catering for religions and traditions including Catholic, CofE, non-religious, Bahai, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish burials and many more besides.

With its cemetery established in 1860 and its crematorium opened in 1957, New Southgate offers dedicated burial areas for Greek Orthodox, Caribbean and Catholic communities, plus wooded areas for people who wish to have more natural surroundings. Wander round and contemplate the statue of Our Lady one minute, and peaceful green havens the next.

The traditional chapel, which offers an organ as well as a CD system, appeals to everyone from Hindus and Sikhs to secularists. Peace and common sense prevail. Crosses and other religious symbols can be changed or removed to create the right setting for each individual service, but the point is that it remains the spitting image of a handsome Victorian church. In other words, it reflects our Christian heritage, an unpopular phrase, but one that is simply accurate.

No-one is lobbying to knock down its steeple, like poor relations of Reformation icon-smashers or the cultural cleansers of the Chinese Revolution. Far from demanding it resembles an industrial incinerator devoid of any ‘offensive’ character, all faiths and none are sharing this beautiful inside and outside space for their funerals.  

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.

What the faith?

Posted by Reverend Noel Lockyer-Stevens, One Spirit Interfaith Minister

Ed’s note: Noel is writing in response to Richard Rawlinson’s challenging post here

The undertaking of a funeral service is for me one of the most privileged roles I undertake within my ministry in Dorset. I am sure that every minister, ordinand and priest feels the same or similar.

Why is privilege so important? When someone contacts me to take a funeral service it is because that it is recognised that I may be able to meet the needs of the newly bereaved family and the person who has left this mortal realm.

What are those needs? I believe they are as follows;

To be treated in a heartfelt way,

To be treated with respect for their religious or non religious belief

For the person who has passed to be honoured and their life to be celebrated despite any pain or anger from family or friends

To offer a landmark service that can be used for healing after honouring the deceased.

How can I help to meet those needs? I can arrive at the home of an unknown family as a stranger, discuss in intimate detail the life of someone I did not know and hopefully leave the lives of that family as a friend.

As a One Spirit Interfaith Minister I am not interested in tethering my belief system to the family I visit. For me anything that is respectful to the life of the departed and brings solace or comfort to the bereaved is okay in my book. The choice of music, song, prayer, poem or other reading is used as a tool for relief rather than invoking any form of guilt or shame or hurt.

I will not judge a life as right, wrong, bad or sinful, because these are points of view, not absolutes. I do not preach, I deliver soft and gentle messages of joy, forgiveness and hope. I do this in a way tailored to the beliefs of the family, whether they see an afterlife or not. Is there one? Can I say with proof positive that there is? Will I say with denial there is not?

This is not sitting on the fence, this is not a person afraid to talk about his beliefs of religion and spirituality. But neither will I tell any family what they can or cannot use to heal their pain, that there is only one brand of plaster to put on an open wound. Many brands of plaster aid healing and I am open to them all.

The order is rapidly fadin’

Blog reader Kathryn Edwards has drawn our attention to an interesting article in the Guardian. Thanks, Kathryn. 

In it, Rosanna Greenstreet tells how her aunt Molly donated her body for medical education or research, thereby denying everyone the benefit of a funeral. Greenstreet tells us what family and friends did instead:

Molly didn’t believe in God and hated funerals, but she loved a party. So on Saturday 12 May, on what would have been her 94th birthday weekend, Stephen and Prudence held one for her. The celebration lunch was in a private room at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Chez Bruce, in south London. All Molly’s nearest and dearest came. There were photos of her through the ages and letters of condolence from her friends. It was a lovely occasion: we drank champagne as we shared our memories of Molly, and there were no tears.

Greenstreet’s father also wants to donate his bodyto Cambridge university, both for the benefit that will confer and also because it will enable him to evade a funeral. He’s written down seven reasons: 

1. Hopefully, to make some contribution to medical training

2. To spare relatives the trouble of organising a funeral.

3. To spare my estate the cost of a funeral (a “cheap” one might cost £3,000).

4. To spare possible “mourners” the trouble of attending a funeral. 

5. To avoid the hypocrisy of troubling the Anglican church to participate in a service when I have attended so few other services since I left school.

6. There is nothing that could be said or sung at a church funeral service that would reflect my views (such as they are) on life, death and fate. Anyone curious about my life can be sufficiently informed by my detailed and intimate diaries (currently 76 volumes).

7. To avoid anyone having to trouble to say anything interesting or pleasant about a life distinguished only by its lack of significant distinction – or disgrace.

Typically self-deprecating and, perhaps, peculiarly British. Anthony Greenstreet may be 83 but he’s in tune with the zeitgeist. Like an ever-increasing number of people, he can’t see the point of a conventional funeral, and his daughter is catching on to the attractions of a funeral without a body. 

Greenstreet concludes:

It’s hard to think about what we will do to remember my father when he has gone up to Cambridge for the last time. Fancy restaurants have never been his thing – he has always preferred home-cooking. Nor does he drink much – his preferred tipple is tea, taken without milk, harking back to the days when he started his career as a “humble clerk” in India. So, perhaps, when the time comes, we will sit around the kitchen table with a cuppa, make a start on those 76 diaries, and really find out what made the old man tick!

The comments under the article are worth reading. Here are some:

Mrs PunkAs

When my father in law passed away recently we respected his wishes not to have a funeral – he was non religious and wanted no public gathering so instead we hired a room at the crematorium and gave the four grandchildren an assortment of multi coloured vivid markers each. They spent a lovely half an hour drawing all sorts of stuff all over his coffin, pictures, words, memories etc. It was really good for them. It was the best send-off I’ve been to.


I’d like to be stripped of all useable parts and then squashed into an old cardboard receptacle and ploughed under at a random beauty spot.
Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

Sandyr9 (whose father donated his body)

For my father, we reserved a chapel, placed an obituary with time and location of service, called distant friends and relatives, and had a lovely service: A minister friend presided, biblical passages were preached and discussed, and traditional hymns were played. After the service, there was a reception wherein attendees met and conversed with family. To my thinking, we had a funeral for my father.

 These sentiments are as common among Guardian readers as they are among the readers of any other paper. Each inspires the others to do something minimal or creative or alternative or all of the above. And of course, the more people exchange these sorts of views, the more they empower themselves, so that when the time comes, the more likely they are to have the clarity of mind to reject a funeral director’s conventional  offer. 

The message to funeral directors is one that Bob Dylan set to music all those years ago: better start swimming. 

Full Guardian article here


What do Quakers and atheists have in common?

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

You’d think Quakers and atheists were poles apart but I’ve been pondering a similarity. On the surface, Quaker funerals are very different from humanist funerals, and that’s aside from faith in God. The former involves silent reflection and prayer, the latter tends to be dominated by words and music celebrating the life of the deceased. What they share in common is the emphasis on individuality.

Quaker founder George Fox was an earnest Leicestershire lad who rejected parental pressure to become a ‘hireling minister’, as neither the Church of England nor any of the dissenting sects of the 17th century matched his perception of how the Almighty should be worshipped and obeyed.

In response to a dream in which he was told to take a lonely journey in search of the light, he left home with nothing but his Bible, and wandered the country for a few years. Finding no consolations in organised religion, he began accepting his own idiosyncratic imaginings as revelations.

Founding his opinions on isolated Bible texts, he gradually evolved a system at variance with every existing form of Christianity. His central dogma was that of the ‘inner light’, communicated directly to the individual soul by Christ.

Creeds and churches, rites and sacraments were discarded as outward things. Carrying the Protestant doctrine of private judgment to its logical conclusion, even the Scriptures were to be interpreted by the inner light. Inconvenient passages, such as those establishing Baptism and the Eucharist, were interpreted in an allegorical sense, while other passages were insisted upon with a literalness previously unknown.

From the text ‘Swear not at all’, Fox drew the illicitness of oaths, even when demanded by the magistrate. War, even if defensive, was declared unlawful. Art, music, drama, sports, dancing and ornamental attire and interiors were rejected as unbecoming the gravity of a Christian.

As Fox began public preaching, his ideas gained numerous converts. The Society of Friends was born, later called Quakers as a derogatory term. As a growing army of missionaries spread Fox’s word around the world, they made enemies with the establishment and dissenters alike. During the reign of Charles II, thousands of ‘Quakers’ were imprisoned in England. They fared worse in the Puritan colonies in Massachusetts, where members were hanged for heresy.

Due to the excesses of some of his followers, Fox was later compelled to introduce a code of discipline to guide the ‘inner light’. The early Quakers, and those around today, often admit the so-called external, fundamental dogmas of Christianity, as expounded in the Apostle’s Creed. They may reject as non-Scriptural the term Trinity but they confess the Godhead of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, plus the doctrine of the Redemption and salvation through Christ.

And though Fox dismissed ‘steeple-houses’, he was forced to gather his followers into congregations in meeting houses. They worship without liturgy and in silence until someone is moved by the Spirit to ‘give testimony’, the value of which is gauged by the common sense of the assembly.

In this respect, they certainly differ both from faiths using liturgy-based ceremony, and from secularists, whose services–though individualised–tend to rely on crafted scripts for their structure.  


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

Does this make the case for a secular funeral ritual?

Here’s an interesting and stimulating view of funerals from Guardian commenter Sussexperson:

Each to their own, and all that, but there are serious flaws in the “capturing the person” style of funeral. I’ve been involved in a depressingly large number of those over recent years, so can speak from bitter experience.

You don’t, as a rule, have very long to organise a funeral service: often, less than a week. Consequently, friends and family are scrabbling around for favourite readings, favourite music etc. If the funeral’s at the crem, you generally have to choose the least worst option from the music on offer rather than the single piece of music the dead person would really have wanted. If you’re tasked with giving the eulogy (or “saying a few words”, as it’s usually put), it’s just awful: the closer you were to the person, the less able you are to sum them up in a glib two-or-three-minute address. Result: the general attendees may come away saying the usual things about “a lovely service” or whatever, but you, the handful of nearest and dearest, know you’ve short-changed your relative/friend — that it’s all been a bit sketchy and inadequate. Horrible. And the guilt of that stays with you.

Myself, I’ve decided I don’t want to inflict all that on my own family/friends when I go. I’ve left instructions in my will that there’s to be no “saying a few words” or other DIY stuff at my funeral; it’s to be the traditional C of E Book of Common Prayer funeral service, and no nonsense. Not because I’m religious, but because it’s the most perfectly-constructed ritual I know of — and ritual is there for a reason. It externalises all the thoughts and feelings that people in grief (assuming anyone does grieve my departure!) can’t easily put into words themselves. It provides a framework. And it lets the mourners mourn, instead of foisting upon them the necessity of getting up an ad hoc bit of am-dram. Furthermore, by using the same ritual, the same words, that have been in use for centuries, it makes that single death part of a long continuity: something to be accepted as the fate of all mortals, not some exceptional outrage against natural law. Much more comforting, in my view.

Plenty of opportunity afterwards, over the funeral baked meats, for the anecdotes and personal reminiscences and quiet chuckles, if people want to do that.

In the same comments thread was this, from Remorsefulchekist:

I went to a Christian funeral and was bored witless.
I went to a Christian funeral and was moved beyond words
I went to an Atheist funeral and was bored witless.
I went to an Atheist funeral and was moved beyond words
Repeat with variations for Sikhs, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Agnostics, Buddhists . . . 

Guardian article here

Quote of the day

One interesting fact I encounter is what constitutes a ‘religious funeral’. I have on a number of occasions met and prayed with distressed familes who have had humanist funerals because they thought that ‘non-religious’ meant C of E!

Comment in the Guardian here.

Thank God for secularism

Posted by our religious correspondent, Richard Rawlinson

RR writes: I had planned to discuss funerals in Islamic cultures, but concluded anyone interested could find such information elsewhere. See link to 10 Muslim Funeral Traditions here:

Instead, I want to address concerns about Islam’s conflict with faith-tolerating, secular society. This is not about funerals per se, but it’s waving the flag for freedom in a forum that celebrates choice in the field of secular and religious funerals.

A few years ago, I worked for a time as an expat in the Middle East, where I interviewed for the Catholic Herald the Bishop of Arabia about the struggle to attain the same religious freedoms for Christians in Arab nations that Muslims enjoy elsewhere in the world. A few weeks ago, an Arab friend I met in the region visited me in London, and conversation turned to grief between Islam and the West.

As he drank my wine, he described himself as a moderate-but-observant Muslim who admittedly lapsed on some observances. He said he was offended by the way, since 9/11/01, Islam has been defined by despotism, claiming the West is demonising his faith as purely radical, and thus impeding progress in battling terrorism – effectively consigning us to a state of permanent war with the world’s billion-plus Muslims.

I replied by asking him if he would support the battle against terrorism by speaking out against the uses of the Quran for radical purposes. After all, he perceived himself to be a Muslim who embraced our freedom culture, for whom sharia is a matter of private belief, not public mission. Yet he stuck to the line that the West was inflaming the ‘Arab Street’, and seemed reluctant to link ‘real’ Islam with regarding women as chattel; killing those who apostasise from Islam; institutionalising religious intolerance in society, or regarding Jews as subhuman.

The problem is that while moderate Muslims are a reality, they are often in denial that Islam itself is in conflict with secular society, because it’s not merely a religious doctrine, but is a comprehensive socio-economic and political system whose tenets are fundamentally at odds with democracy.

Almost from the beginning, the West has tempered religion by acknowledging the legitimacy of secular institutions, thus making space for individual freedom.

Like Communism, Islam doesn’t ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ but rather aims to control the state without being subject to it. By insisting on the submission of everything to the will of Allah, they end up with the Taliban, Iranian Mullahs and al Qaeda.

All religions are exclusive, but Islam almost immediately developed into a state which seemed to be all of a piece with the religion. The Koran is its spiritual and secular book of law – Allah’s personal word, with orders that need to be fulfilled regardless of place or time. Then there’s Muhammad, a warlord who is nevertheless deemed the perfect human role model.

In his book America Alone, Mark Steyn says we have three options: 1) capitulate to Islam, 2) wage all-out war against it, 3) it undergoes a reformation and enlightenment, retaining its name but eschewing its political substance. With 1) and 2) being unacceptable and horrific, is the best way to achieve 3) accommodation or resistance?

I believe resistance is the best course of action. A concrete theology of moderate Islam does not exist and will have to be created. It will have to be non-literal and reformist, and will have a tough time competing with Islamist ideology, which is anti-constitutional and anti-freedom in many of its core particulars. Instead of letting my friend pretend to be moderate, I’d rather empower him with a clear choice: defend Islamic despotism or man up as a reformer by promoting a coherent, moderate Islam that embraces the West, and in particular the separation of secular public life from privately held religious beliefs.