What about those Interfaithers?

Another controversial post by Richard Rawlinson

When religion is broached here in relation to secular funerals, I observe a few commentators opining the fact religion in this context tends to be referring to Judeo-Christian monotheism rather than wider discussion of faiths from New Age sects to Buddhism and Hinduism. I’d also welcome informed bloggers across the spectrum, but today I’d like to revisit the Interfaith niche in the hope of soliciting your opinions about it.

For example, the OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation seems to be forging a niche for itself that sits firmly on the fence between civil and religious, claiming to design funeral ceremonies where everyone attending, regardless of faith or views, will feel included.

Acknowledging that a funeral today often includes people attending from different faiths or none, the foundation supplies male and female ministers who have followed a two-year training programme with the Interfaith Seminary. It claims this training allows for the recognition of ‘the inner spiritual truths of the individual [which are also] at the heart of the world’s great faith traditions’. It adds: ‘There are countless paths leading to the One God / Truth / Great Spirit / Source-of-All’.

This is clearly not just another Protestant sect as it’s aiming to be as inclusive of agnostics and non-Christians as it is those uncomfortable with the organised Church. In fact, the reference to One God / Truth / Great Spirit / Source-of-All above is the only one I could find on its website. What a considerate use of forward slashes, which could be joined by AA’s Higher Power and Wicca’s Mother Nature.

Of its ministry, it says: ‘We aim to be of service to people of all faiths or none’, citing as an example ‘those who are seeking spiritual connection and expression, yet feel uncomfortable with conventional religion’.

It continues: ‘We are not creating a new religion, but filling a growing spiritual gap in modern society. It’s not our aim to convert anyone away from their faith, but to support people who wish to enquire more deeply into their own spiritual tradition and their own soul’.

Whether agnostic or religious, might this approach be comforting to some in the context of funerals? Or does it leave a sickly taste?

Chalk and cheese…

Posted by Richard Rawlinson 

…Venus and Mars and all that: relations between those with and those without faith can get prickly, something which inevitably affects discussion of funeral ritual and belief in the afterlife.

Two small pleasures of posting here are occasional positive feedback, and amicable sparring when there’s polite disagreement. A more shameful pleasure is gleened from niggling an intemperate minority who would prefer it everyone spelt God and Christian without the capital G and C.

This situation is clearly a microcosm of the wider debate about religion. Yes, crackpot Creationists get up people’s noses. Yes, some atheists are militant, too. But there’s plenty of common ground to be explored between the moderate majority.

The gist of a typical argument now is:

A: ‘Only a brain-washed idiot could fail to realise that God is a delusion.’

B: ‘Well, I believe in God, and I don’t consider myself a brain-washed idiot, so I don’t think I can agree with you there.’

A: ‘See, I said you were brain-washed’.

Inane stuff, eh? The root of the problem is mutual suspicion that we’re trying to change each other’s attitudes. Of course we debate because we want others to understand our world view, but we’re also realistic enough not to expect to change minds. But does this mean a debate that transcends name-calling is not worthwhile?

For an example of a reasonably good-natured and illuminating discussion between an atheist and believer, check out the below link to BeliefNet. Hats off to Sam Harris for choosing to debate not with a loony literalist but with a thoughtful Christian like Andrew Sullivan. 


The status of marriages and funerals

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

I recently had a conversation with a priest about the topic du jour: same-sex civil partnerships–which offer legal equality–becoming known as marriages, so gaining semantic equality by reinterpreting a term traditionally reserved for the union between a man and woman as they become husband and wife.

For some reason, the discussion led me to ask why the funeral isn’t among the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. The rites of passage of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Matrimony are sacraments, as are Reconciliation (confession), Holy Orders (ordination), Anointing of the Sick (last rites) and, at the centre of it all, the Eucharist (mass). The priest’s answer: ‘The funeral mass comes within the sacrament of the Eucharist so doesn’t need to be a sacrament in itself’.

But both weddings and funerals vary between those in which Communion is offered to the congregation and those in which it isn’t, I replied. The nuptial mass and funeral mass sometimes omit the mass bit.

The choice of Eucharist or not is pragmatic, came the reply, as it reflects today’s mix of people attending marriages and funerals. Those planning their ceremonies might choose to dispense with the Eucharist in acknowledgement of the fact that many guests are not baptised and so cannot partake. To avoid the sacrilege of giving the Host inadvertently to someone not eligible, or of upsetting someone by offering a blessing but no Eucharist, such awkwardness is avoided. After all, he added, practicing Christians, who receive Communion regularly, can do so at another time.  

But if the Eucharist isn’t an essential part of either ceremony, I persisted, this doesn’t explain why marriage stands on its own as a sacrament but funerals do not. 

The explanation gets theologically technical here and, as the term ‘sacrament’ only relates to Catholic and Orthodox marriages anyway (Protestants dropped it as a sacrament), I’ll try to be brief to stay on message.

In a nutshell, all the sacraments are outward rituals bestowing inner grace. At baptism and last rites, we may be too young or too unconscious to participate in the way we do at confirmation and confession, but we believe divine grace occurs through the intermediary in holy orders. The same can be said of marriage but it stands apart from other sacraments as it’s a contract between two flawed people and not directly with the perfect God. However, it’s nevertheless a binding contract before God.

So back to funerals. The Requiem Mass is part of the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mass for the dead and the mass for the living. Christ’s salvic sacrifice is at the centre, hence guidance against undue emphasis on eulogies for the deceased. When the bereaved choose a ceremony without the Eucharist, the liturgy, though not referred to as a sacrament, nonetheless offers the same message of Easter hope, and commends the deceased to God. Grace can be bestowed through prayer, not just through the sacraments. There is also always the option to schedule a memorial mass at a later date.

Thanks for the clarification, Father. But one last question: we may recall our confirmation or marriage ceremonies but not our baptism or last rites. Although we clearly don’t actively participate in our own funerals, do you think we witness them? The answer: God only knows. 

From God we come and to Him we return

A thought for the day from Richard Rawlinson

The trend for funerals conducted as celebrations of life must surely stem from society’s weakened belief in life after death. Even Christians now opt for the panegyric of the dead through tributes to the deceased instead of a ceremony combining natural grief for the loss and hope of the mercy of God.

In the days of the Hapsburg Empire there was a ritual to receive the body of a dead emperor into the cathedral in Vienna: attendants with the coffin would knock on the doors and a voice from within would ask: “Who demands entry?” Many grand titles would be read out. The doors would remain shut. The attendants would knock again and the same question would be asked. The response this time would simply be “A poor sinner”. The doors would be thrown open and the coffin would proceed inside.

Thoughts for Lent


Posted by Richard Rawlinson


“I’ve been to funerals where I was pretty sure the majority were atheists and they listened to the vicar say the deceased had gone to a better place and everyone’s toes curled. We can’t prove it’s not so but the chances that it is, are rather meagre. If they did believe you all meet up again in this big theme park in the sky why were they crying? How can you say you believe in the afterlife and weep at the finality of death?”  — Ian McEwan

Catholic Herald contributor Francis Philips suggests this is a rather banal response to the mystery of death and the hereafter. She does so by comparing the novelist’s words with those of Cistercian prior Christian de Chergé, who anticipated his own death at the hands of Algerian terrorists in 1994. Two years before his beheading, he wrote:



“I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down… For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything.”

This profoundly Christian approach is the antithesis of dreary funerals, argues Phillips. ‘As for weeping at funerals, tears are part of life, of being human… Christian de Chergé’s family would also have wept – even as they believed their son was now united forever with God’. 

Thoughts of a funeral-goer

Posted by Lyra Mollington

The lovely Mr Cowling and his little friend Vale have kindly invited me to contribute to the splendid GFG. As a lady of a certain age, I have attended more than my fair share of funerals, becoming something of a connoisseur.

I have also attended more than my fair share of dreadful funerals. On one occasion we were regaled with threats of hell and damnation by an intense and possibly psychopathic lady vicar. She clearly warmed to her theme as she saw our horrified faces. We were her ideal audience – unable to escape.

The humanists are only slightly better – why do they have to mention religion so much? Yes, we get it – you can have a funeral without God. And yes, you mean no disrespect to those of a religious faith. Get a grip for heaven’s sake! We’re not going to fall apart because you’re unable to wax lyrical about Life Everlasting. However, I do miss a good hymn. As long as it’s not All Things Bright & Beautiful! Unless the organist is playing it in the key of C, at my age I have no hope of reaching the top notes. But even that is better than Wind Beneath My Wings. Does no-one listen to the lyrics?

Anyway, it got me thinking. What if my children chose something like that for my funeral. Plan ahead – that’s the key. So whilst we were tucking into our crispy duck in restaurant in China Town, I tentatively raised the subject of my demise. It went something like this:

Me: I’ve been thinking about my funeral.

Daughter: (imagine high-pitched disapproval) Mum! We’re eating!

Me: Well we don’t often get the chance to talk like this. I just wanted…

Son: (fingers in ears) Not listening. Not listening.

Me: I’ll write it all down then.

Daughter: Fine – but it’s not legally binding you know.

Son: (starting to chuckle) Yeah, but don’t worry – we’ve got lots of ideas.

Later that evening we saw Bill Bailey’s Work In Progress and everyone howled with laughter when he sang the first few notes of “I Will Always Love You…”

Now that’s another song I don’t want at my funeral. Does no-one listen to the lyrics?

Ed’s note: the first two lines are: ‘If I should stay, / I would only be in your way.’ A very good point you make, Ms Mollington. 

C of E raises funeral fee to £160

The Church of England’s General Synod has just announced a rise in the fee payable to a priest for officiating at a funeral to £160. 

The fee takes into account both admin and also the heating and lighting of the church. 

There’s no information available yet on whether this fee will apply also to crematorium funerals.

But any increase in the C of E fee is, of course, good news for secular celebrants. 

Story in the Guardian here


Quote of the day

I’ve attended both a religious and a … civil? funeral recently, and the similarities – the sadness of the person’s departure, the commemoration of a life well spent, humour, grief and the gathering together of people who might not otherwise have seen each other in a long time – were far more obvious to me than the differences.

Guardian commenter Jehenna here.

Utterly impersonal and awfully long

I follow The Hearth of Mopsus blog. I like it very much — the writer’s fastidious prose, his rigorous,  intellectual objectivity on the one hand, his very earnest doubts and self-questioning on the other. He’s written a very good book about holy wells, by the way. Not your bag? Fine by me. Each to his/her own. Much more to the point, I don’t comfortably think that he would like being talked about on this blog, and I’m sorry to do it to him but I’m going to do it anyway. 

In a recent post he describes his father’s funeral. He is a minister himself. 

The worst part was the minister. At least he wasn’t the ‘crem cowboy’ who’d taken my uncle’s funeral, but he was cracking on a bit then and may well not be around himself now. The chap who performed my Dad’s obsequies was a somewhat offhand Ulsterman who preached not on the Bible text that I’d chosen but on The Lord Is My Shepherd which was one of the hymns. The argument was: the Psalm that hymn was based on was written by King David. King David was a great sinner. He found peace and hope in his relationship with the Good Shepherd, and so must we. ‘We must do business with the Good Shepherd’, he said several times, having come up with a line he liked. 

He concludes:

I don’t know, perhaps I do it all wrong – perhaps I should be completely ignoring the deceased and whatever the bereaved might be feeling, and trying to convert people by making them feel bad rather than loved. You may detect a degree of scepticism in my tone. Thank God for Fats Domino or I would have been left thinking I’d prefer a secular funeral. Perhaps I still would.

You can read it all here. Do, please. 

You probably know how he felt. And we reflect that, though funerals need to be done better, because they matter more, than any other ‘life event’ ceremony, they’re not always, whether religious or secular. The occasion doesn’t look after itself, nor do the words, you can’t just arrange your face and rattle them off. That Ulsterman probably thought he did just fine. So, probably, do lots of secular celebrants. But this is a job for extra-ordinary people. 

You may need Fats to cheer you up, too.